Mozart: Midway Between Bach and Schoenberg

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Mozart, and Bach: Nick van Bloss (piano), London Octave / Andrew Watkinson (director). St Martin in the Fields, London, 27.5.2013 (MB)

Handel: Solomon: ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’
Mozart: Piano Concerto no.13 in C major, KV 415
Bach: Piano Concerto no.7 in G minor, BWV 1058
Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C minor, KV 546
Serenade in G minor, KV 525, ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’

The London Symphony Orchestra’s free Berlioz concert in Trafalgar Square coincided awkwardly with the first half of this concert at St Martin in the Fields. One’s heart went out to the performers. In the circumstances, a desire to rush through The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba was not entirely unforgivable; but once one’s ears adjusted to the very quick tempo, there was cultivated playing to be heard from the members of London Octave – twelve-strong, despite the name. Intonation was more of a problem during parts of Mozart’s neglected C major Piano Concerto, KV 415. (It doubtless suffers from comparisons with two brothers in the same key.) Fortunately, Nick van Bloss offered compensation with the piano part. True majesty was imparted to the first movement, despite the lack of trumpets and drums (and woodwind). A more yielding approach announced itself during each movement’s cadenza. The slow movement in particular offered ample evidence of the pianist’s skill in spinning a line; as long as it lasted, it was sung, with not a hint of the choppiness that bedevils so much contemporary Mozart performance. A fine balance, moreover, was struck between the ‘hunting’ high spirits – never, of course, unalloyed in Mozart – and the minor mode Adagio material in the finale. Whilst it would hardly be plausible to claim that the other orchestral instruments were not missed, they were missed less than one might have expected.

Van Bloss was on better form still in Bach’s G minor Piano Concerto; the orchestra too seemed more at ease, with few tuning problems this time around. This was, especially so far as the piano was concerned, a muscular performance eager to communicate Bach’s harmonic rhythm and very successful in doing so. One hears the music very differently from the original violin version (up a semitone), not least because of the piano’s left-hand part, which here helped greatly in generating and sustaining impetus in performance. The slow movement benefited from judicious application of left-hand octaves, Busoni’s example followed in the best spirit. Onward tread was not impaired but rather incited by the gravitas engendered. The joy of the dance was fully experienced in the finale, though without any of that hard-driven quality so fashionable in so-called ‘authentic’ performances.

Mozart’s great C minor Adagio and Fugue offered an apt pendant, speaking as it does of Mozart’s absorption in the contrapuntal example of Bach and Handel – and in the chromaticism of the former. It is certainly one of those works in which Mozart stands mid-way between Bach and Schoenberg, and that is for the most part how it felt here, though there were again certain aggravations in terms of tuning, especially during the fugue. Eine kleine Nachtmusik certainly seemed to appeal to elements of a somewhat restless audience, and much of the playing could be enjoyed, though it takes a more inspired rendition – most likely with a conductor – to elevate this all-too-familiar music to the stature it deserves. Still, with the exception of a fast minuet – surely too fast for ‘Allegretto’ – tempi were judiciously chosen, and the music progressed without fussy interruption.

Mark Berry