Mozart Playing of Distinction from Höbarth and Tomes

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart:Erich Höbarth (violin), Susan Tomes (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 30.9.2012 (MB)

Sonata for piano and violin no.22 in A major, KV 305/293d
Rondo in D major, KV 485
Sonata for piano and violin no.27 in G major, KV 379/373a
Sonata for piano and violin no.21 in E minor, KV 304/300c
Rondo in A minor, KV 511
Sonata for piano and violin no.32 in B-flat major, KV 454

I wonder how differently one hears music when one has played, indeed, performed it oneself. The difference can doubtless be exaggerated and will always depend on a number of other factors too. Moreover, it is surely possible to listen critically to a performance of Tristan und Isolde, and indeed to write about it, without having conducted the work, let alone to have played or to have sung every part. Nevertheless, there is probably a certain insight – ‘in-hearing’? – which is likely to assert itself via the engagement of performance, even if it remains far from impossible otherwise to acquire it. I was led to such thoughts on this particular occasion since I realised that I had at some point, and in some cases more than once, performed each of these works in public. Indeed, such a bloody nose did I receive from a teenage performance of the D major Rondo that I swore I should never play Mozart in public again, realising with a vengeance the truth of Schnabel’s oft-quoted remark about music being better than it could be performed. It took me another fourteen years before I dared perform that particular piece again, though in the meantime I had actually played its more complex cousin, the A minor Rondo, which was also on this Wigmore Hall programme, a number of times in front of an audience. At the very least, then, bitter experience enables one to realise quite what an extraordinarily difficult task performing any piece of Mozart will always be; indeed, it would be unusual were one not to conclude that Mozart is the most difficult of all composers to perform well.

In a field more than unduly littered with failures, Erich Höbarth and Susan Tomes acquitted themselves very well. Tomes is celebrated as a chamber musician, so I was interested to hear her in two solo rondos. The D major, KV 485, was fluent, nicely shaded, though to my ears at least lacking a sense of darker undercurrents. Many, I realise, would say that they are simply not there in so overtly sunny, even blithe, a work, but certain harmonic shifts would seem to imply otherwise. It was a good performance – I shudder when I even think of that teenage effort of mine mentioned above – but perhaps a little closer to the spirit of JC Bach than to the richness of Mozart. The A minor Rondo, which I have often thought Mozart’s single greatest work for solo piano, was sad, chaste, though none the less involving for that. Counterpoint was clear but, every bit as important, imbued with harmonic direction. At times, I might have wished for something more Romantic, especially in the build up to those climaxes at which Mozart really goes for the Wagnerian, even Bergian, jugular. Nevertheless, a more Classical reading, so long as it is not unduly understated or, worse, mechanised, has validity. No one could have doubted from Tomes’s performance that this was a towering masterpiece – though perhaps someone behind me did, given that she burst into inexplicable laughter at the end.

Framing the two solo performances in both halves were violin sonatas or, strictly, sonatas for piano with violin accompaniment. (For what it is worth, they are not really: a performance of the piano parts alone would be a nonsense.) KV 305/293d, in A major, received a wonderful performance. The first movement was ebullient without sounding boisterous, Höbarth and Tomes exhibiting impressive unanimity without a hint of the clinical. They proved themselves flexible, as the harmony demanded or at least suggested. From the outset, and throughout the recital, I was impressed by the very real sense of a physical connection with Höbarth’s instrument; this was a true violinist, not a mere virtuoso. There was not the glossy perfection one associates with certain celebrated and, frankly, boring players, but something far more rewarding and meaningful. So many players take the second movement far too fast. It was a relief that Höbarth and Tomes allowed plenty of space for the harmony to speak, their command of phrasing ensuring that the longer line unfolded without interruption. Mozart is already not so very distant from Beethoven here, so the variations emerged as properly weighty, in the sense of being consequential – and not just in the minor mode. Above all, the players communicated their love for the music – even above a quite extraordinary bout of bronchial intervention.

The G major sonata, KV 379/373a, benefited from a rich, almost Beethovenian, sound to the piano introduction, matched by Höbarth’s violin response, equally rich and dignified. The Allegro was alert, finely articulated, and every bit as responsive to the demands of the harmony. Yes, there were moments of imperfect intonation, but the meaning of the notes was always fully apparent. Neither musician mistook vehemence for driving too hard. As with the second movement of the A major sonata, the intricacies of Mozartian variation form sounded not at all distant from Beethoven. There is a tendency amongst some musicologists as well as performers to underestimate Mozart and Haydn as writers of variations; that was rightly resisted here, or better, would never have occurred to either musician. Tomes notably relished both the syncopations and the richness of harmony. Each variation was characterised, not least the extraordinary Bachian fifth variation – though it is a moot point how much of Sebastian Bach’s music Mozart would yet have known. This, with its piano decoration and violin pizzicato, can hardly fail to put one in mind of certain slow movements from Bach’s piano concertos. And the whole was undoubtedly greater than the sum of the parts.

The opening phrase of the E minor sonata, KV 304/300c, was imbued with Schubertian sadness, but Mozart’s imagination was soon shown to be more variegated than that might imply. Indeed, the first movement was characterised by a passion that all but the most sentimental would recognise as operatic. There were passages when I thought that Höbarth, perhaps recalling his association with Concentus Musicus Wien, might justly have applied a little more vibrato, but tonal warmth was certainly not neglected elsewhere. Mozart’s piano writing sounded, quite rightly, concertante in style at times. The nobility of contrapuntal utterance from the piano’s opening bars of the second movement marked it out as something quite special, counterpoint and melody proving properly indivisible. The E major trio emerged warm, hymn-like, as if from another (Zauberflöte-like) world, which in a sense it is. Tragic vehemence marked the sonata’s close.

Few, I am sure, would contest the claim that the B-flat major sonata, KV 454, is one of Mozart’s greatest contributions to the genre. (To my mind, the A major sonata, KV 526, is the only work to match it.) The first movement’s introduction had due grandeur, eliciting a splendid feeling of release for the ‘launch’, as it were, of the exposition proper. Again, there was an entirely apt air of the piano concerto to much of the writing. Joy was not unalloyed – Mozart is always more ambivalent than Haydn, Handel, even Bach – but the fecundity of his operatic imagination sang through, indeed moulded, his conception of sonata form. Though the performance never went so far as to be hard-driven, there were occasions when I thought it might have yielded a little; I am nit-picking really though. The slow movement flowed without being harried. There was no doubt here as to Mozart’s operatic inspiration; this was revealed to us in its beauty, its darkness, all its ambiguities, as a sister-aria to those of the Countess, though of course such ‘influence’ runs both ways. If I might sometimes have preferred something a little more Romantic, that is neither here nor there. Despite Mozart’s marking it is very tempting to take the Allegretto too fast to allow the richness of his melodic and harmonic genius properly to tell. Here the players arguably fell on the fast side, not absurdly so, for the music remained enjoyable and, at times, winningly theatrical. I could not help but think, however, that a slightly more measured approach might have offered a more penetrating interpretation. That was nevertheless one of very few reservations I harboured concerning an impressive recital.

Mark Berry