Peerless Mozart from Radu Lupu and Kremerata Baltica

05/02/2016

Salzburg Mozartwoche (5) – Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Weinberg: Kremerata Baltica, Radu Lupu (piano/conductor). Grosser Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg, 31.1.2016. (MB)

Mendelssohn – String Symphony no.7 in D minor
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.27 in B-flat major, KV 595
Weinberg – Sinfonietta no.2 in G minor, op.74
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.23 in A major, KV 488

My visit to this year’s Salzburg Mozartwoche ended in style with Kremerata Baltica, augmented for the Mozart works by wind players from Concerto Budapest, and Radu Lupu. The festival’s Mendelssohn theme was honoured with a stunning performance of his Seventh String Symphony, in D minor, quite the best I have heard of any of these absurdly early works. Was Mendelssohn perhaps an even greater prodigy than Mozart? The musical equivalent of the nouveau riche loves to disparage Mozart’s juvenilia, keen to show that it can tell the difference between Bastien und Bastienne and The Magic Flute. Yes, thank you; we all can. Nevertheless, despite the riches to be found by those with ears to listen in Mozart’s early works, Mendelssohn’s achievement is at least as extraordinary. The players (led by Džeraldas Bidva) captured to a tee, in all its excitement and life, the strange and delightful blend of Baroque and Mozart to be heard here in the first movement. (One would not necessarily want to hear many of these ‘symphonies’ together, but as an extended overture, there is much to enjoy.) Clarity and dynamism were as one. The key of D minor was surely recognisable from Mozart’s own writing; Gluck’s Don Juan came to mind too. Mozart was also strongly echoed in the Andante, even if here the echo is slightly bland. Intelligently phrased, with its modulations relished, it is difficult to imagine the movement coming off better. There is greater originality in the minuet and trio, not least in the lower strings, and so it sounded, even if it does not sound like the mature composer. A few parts of the finale do, I think, even if most still do not. At any rate, the performance was excellent, highly convincing throughout. Mendelssohn’s contrapuntal learning served him and the players well.

The absolute highlight of the concert for me was Mozart’s final piano concerto, for which, of course, the players were joined by Lupu. Despite an ever-so-slightly shaky opening bar or two, the performance soon settled down. The opening ritornello sounded more vernal than autumnal; here and throughout, there was a true sense of chamber music writ large. Lupu ornamented his line from his first entry, but it never sounded anything other than ‘natural’. And what a touch he has, having one feel humane depth as well as melodic delights. Lupu showed how his playing can twinkle without sacrifice to the harmonic implications of Mozart’s score. The oscillation between tonic major and minor, so crucial to much mature musical Classicism, and never more so, surely, than in this work, proved so in performance too. If the orchestra offered spring, Lupu’s playing seemed more of an Indian summer; at times ghostly, yet always gorgeous of tone and characterful too. One very noticeable fluff (if I remember correctly, a wrong bass note) perturbed no one, likewise a slip at the end of the cadenza. This was very much a tale of an elder sage and his younger disciples. The opening to the slow movement registered divine simplicity, the warmth of the orchestral response enchanting and consoling. That major-minor oscillation sounded, and yes felt, truly heartbreaking. I do not think I have heard the piano line sound so simple and yet so inimitable as here: as close, it seemed, to unmediated Mozart as one would ever hear. And that was despite considerable ornamentation, to which it was a delight to hear the woodwind soloists respond in kind. The sheer ‘rightness’ of the opening piano statement in the finale, likewise the orchestral response, set the tone for what followed. Every note in Lupu’s part sounded both properly weighted and yet integrated into the longer line. Is there anything sadder than to know that this would be Mozart’s final essay in the genre? Well, yes: the sadness of his major-mode smiling through tears, here captured to perfection. One felt the fragility of happiness, of beauty, of song, of harmony: yet, onwards Mozart continued.

I had previously been less than bowled over by the music of Mieczyław Weinberg, although I know he has his fervent admirers. This performance of the G minor Sinfonietta, op.74 (1960) came closer to winning me over than any other has done. I think it was a matter both of work and performance, the latter rarely, save, perhaps for the third movement Adagio, overstaying its welcome, the performance as committed as the work will surely ever receive. The first movement opened in vehement, even frightening mode, the string orchestra sound making me think of wartime Honegger (the Second Symphony). The second movement sounded close to Shostakovich and, more interestingly, Prokofiev in ghostly clockwork mode. Kremerata Baltica’s strings really dug in throughout, perhaps still more so in the third and fourth movements. Solos were splendidly taken, but it was the ensemble as a whole that impressed most of all.

The performance of KV 488 was again very much on a chamber scale, but that did not mean that it lacked orchestral contrast. Tutti passages were not only beautifully played but were possessed of a keen, unforced sense of drama. Lupu sounded much as before, which is not in any sense intended to convey a lack of enthusiasm, simply to indicate that I am in danger of running out of superlatives. Occasionally, orchestral phrase endings were a little abrupt, but that should not be exaggerated. Again, it was sheer ‘rightness’ that ruled for the most part in this first movement. Lupu’s opening solo in the Adagio straightforwardly compelled one to listen. It was a proper Adagio too; one often hears this movement taken too fast. Orchestral chiaroscuro was spot on throughout, contributing beautifully to a dignified sadness that felt no need of histrionics. Lupu’s awareness of the ways in which the piano line both is and is not ‘vocal’ impressed; perhaps surprisingly, given his way with KV 595, he left it without ornamentation. The finale was playful, spirited, but of course not without sadness. Again, there was not the slightest sense of performance imposing itself upon the music. This was a delight from beginning to end.

Mark Berry

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