Cultivated Mozart Playing Undermined by Dogmatic Conducting

18/08/2017

Salz

2017 Salzburg Festival [3] – Mozart: Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra / Václav Luks (conductor). Grosser Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg, 13.6.2017. (MB)

Mozart – String Divertimento in F major, KV 138/125cIdomeneo: Ballet Music, KV 367; Symphony no.41 in C major, ‘Jupiter’, KV 551

How difficult – I have not yet lost my English bent for understatement – it is today to find a conductor capable of directing a fine Mozart performance, or at least willing to do so. Perhaps it was always so; not everyone was Colin Davis or Karl Böhm. The perversities of the authenticke brigade, though, have done serious damage. Here, the Mozarteum Orchestra sounded wonderful; when permitted to play, rather than harried or micromanaged, there was much to enjoy. Alas, Václav Luks, who appears very much to have an ‘early music’ background and ‘name’, permitted that far too little.

The F major Divertimento, KV 138/125c, started most promisingly. Had the rest of the performance proceeded similarly, that would have been a very good thing indeed. A small string section (5.4.3.2.1), all standing save for the cellos, offered a bright, cultivated sound, their playing stylish and quite without pedantry. The first movement’s roots in earlier music were apparent, quite rightly, without over-emphasis, its structure clearly, meaningfully presented. Luks, alas, made something of a meal of the Andante, its ease lost or at least obscured. I could have done, moreover, without that slight astringency he seemed determined to inflict upon the strings. At its best, though, the movement evinced a hushed intimacy that compelled one to listen. The finale fizzed with energy. If it might have smiled a little more, counterpoint was admirably clear. The playing itself was, as ever, excellent.

A larger, though still relatively small, band of strings (8.6.5.4.3) was of course joined by wind and drums for the Idomeneo ballet music. Luks’s way with the music, announced immediately in the Chaconne, was unduly aggressive. More damagingly, he seemed unable to communicate a longer line, proceeding bar by bar, sometimes beat by beat. (Oh, for Sir Colin from Munich!) Playing was unfailingly alert; if only Luks had been able to relax a little, to let the music speak ‘for itself’. The Pas seul was warmer, if often hard driven; its corners were well handled, however, and there was no doubting its symphonic nature. Why we had to endure ‘natural’ brass rasping, though, with a modern orchestra, is anyone’s guess. The Passepied was well shaped, if on the fast side, the Gavotte better still, not pushed too far. It was a great pity that the transition to the finale emerged as an arbitrary collection of notes, and that that Passacaille itself proved fierce and, again, quite unsmiling. Messiaen’s charming observation that Mozart’s music ‘smiles’ may or may not be trite; it is undoubtedly true, though, or should be.

The ‘authenticke’ brigade and their camp followers seem unable to avoid ‘rhetorical’ gestures – usually an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to conceal an inability to phrase – in the Jupiter Symphony, especially in its outer movements. When allied to an apparent inability to establish a basic pulse, the result tends, as here, towards dragging, irrespective of speed. Trumpet and drum interventions were unfailingly, tediously underlined, as if there were any need. Structure was generally clear enough, but formal dynamism quite lacking. The recapitulation merely hectored. Once again, the playing itself was excellent. The slow movement was less pulled around, flowing well enough; it, bizarrely, sounded somewhat inconsequential: pleasant rather than unpleasant, but if that is the best one can say concerning a conductor’s view… The Minuet, needless to say, was taken fashionably, one beat to a bar, but was otherwise played reasonably straight, and emerged all the better for it. Alas, its Trio reverted to type, presumably as ‘contrast’. A weird hiatus prior to the reprise of the Minuet did not help either. The finale was fierce, again, rather than joyful, its counterpoint admirably clear. I could not help but think how much better it would have been had the Salzburg players not been saddled with a conductor whose sub-Bernstein podium antics were now really beginning to grate, not least since they seemingly bore no relation to either score or performance. I do not think I have heard the coda pass by with such little wonder: quintuple invertible counterpoint is nothing, apparently, in Luks’s world.

Mark Berry

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