Captivating Mozart and Haydn from Capuçon, Papadopoulos and Oxford Philharmonic

18/11/2017

Mozart and Haydn: Gautier Capuçon (cello), Oxford Philharmonic / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 16.11.2017. (CR)

Mozart Divertimento in D major, K136; Symphony No.29 in A major, K201

Haydn – Cello Concerto No.1 in C major, Hob. VIIb:1; Symphony No.22 in E flat major, ‘The Philosopher’

Common to the works in this charming programme is the fact that they were all written by their respective composers at a fairly early point in their careers, and perhaps that accounts for their generally fresh, easy-going inspiration. Mozart was all of 16 when he composed the Divertimento in D major (one of three in 1772) but it shows absolute assurance in this genre of musical entertainment. The string quartet forces for which it is scored were swelled here with double basses reinforcing the bass line and multiple members of the Oxford Philharmonic taking each instrumental line (6.5.4.4.2).

The result was a generally impulsive performance by Marios Papadopoulos at the helm, especially in the first movement where momentum seemed too artificially forced upon the music rather than allowing it to take a natural course of its own. There was more levity and humour in the concluding Presto which drew a sufficient contrast with the opening movement, despite hardly registering as much faster than the Allegro of the latter.  The Andante second movement evinced greater allure with the generous number of string players contriving a suitable glistening sonority to make up for the minimal use of vibrato.

Mozart’s music sandwiched that of his older Classical era contemporary and friend, Haydn, as the programme concluded with a performance of the Symphony No.29 – perhaps the apogee of Mozart’s early symphony output (he was 18 when he completed it). Here the Oxford Philharmonic cultivated a more agreeably elegant, balanced sound than in the Divertimento, exactly as the poised texture of Mozart’s score demands (with phrases convincingly shaped, as eludes too many performances of his music). The antiphonal layout of the violins sometimes made that seem disintegrated in both compositions rather than clarifying the interplay of the different orchestral lines, and the horns were occasionally too prominent in the Symphony, but these were minor distractions. With mutes on the strings in the latter’s Andante there was still a silken ease to the orchestra’s playing, but the gracefulness of this performance did not preclude a quiet insistence on the repeated dotted rhythms of the Minuet nor an aptly vigorous Allegro con spirito conclusion.

Gautier Capuçon joined the orchestra and Papadopoulos for a captivating performance of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No.1 (originally composed for the Esterhazy court cellist Joseph Weigl around 1765). The orchestra’s opening sequence was stately and lyrical, as befits the music itself, but also harbouring a ready smile and wit which particularly came into its own in the finale. But Capuçon’s entry raised the stakes, with his expressive, urgent playing goading the orchestra on, not to keep up with him in terms of speed or in provocative dialogue, but rather to heighten the yearning, emotional temper of Haydn’s irresistible melodic invention. The accompaniment in the Adagio was delicate and restrained in some passages, merely dutiful and prosaic in others, though it is true that the solo cello is clearly to the fore. That gave Capuçon the opportunity to sing out here with less reserve where, in the first movement, he had tended to surprise and tease with his tendency to hold back rather than expose all extrovert feeling too early. Explicit energy and playfulness – despatched without strain or apparent effort – was saved up for the finale which provided a high-spirited but solid conclusion to the whole Concerto.

The more ruggedly rhetorical, even argumentative nature of Haydn’s Symphony No.22 (dating from 1764 and so virtually contemporary with the Concerto, but inhabiting a very different stylistic world) presages the Sturm und Drang experiments of the symphonies Haydn would compose in the 1770s. The solemn mood of the unusual slow opening movement earned it the nickname ‘Philosopher’ on account of its brooding character, with the use of a pair of cor anglais (rather than the more familiar, higher-pitched oboes) to create a darker-grained colour. Here they sounded slightly sour perhaps, but drawing attention to their deliberately intoned snatches of melody that are passed back and forth between them and the horns, and to my mind that structure looks ahead to the real plainsong incipits which Haydn subsequently used in the ‘Lamentatione’ (No.26) and ‘Alleluia’ (No.30) symphonies. Papadopoulos elicited a corresponding warm, pregnant atmosphere in that opening movement, but also secured a compelling sense of direction with the palpable forward tread of the unceasing quavers in the cellos and double basses. The scurrying violins of the ensuing Presto carried on the purpose of this performance, as also the one-to-a-bar pace of the Minuet, before the emphatic finale brought proceedings to a satisfying close, underpinned by robust horns. The complementary sequence of compositions featured in this concert neatly revealed the movements and influences at work in the crystallisation of the period we now call the Classical, in the hands of its two greatest musical exponents.

Curtis Rogers

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