Charming Mozart, Amusing Haydn and Sparkling Handel from Welsh Sinfonia

Haydn, Mozart, Handel: Welsh Sinfonia, Mark Eager (conductor), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. 28.9.2013 (PCG)

Haydn: Symphony No 59 ‘Fire’
Mozart: A musical joke
Handel: Water Music: Suite No 1

In one of his most celebrated solo sketches, Rowan Atkinson dressed as a schoolmaster stands in front of an imaginary class and defies them to tell him a Shakespearean joke. He is met with a stunned silence. Humour indeed is one thing that dates more quickly than anything else; many even of Hoffnung’s concert items (only sixty years old) now raise little more than a wry smile. Under the circumstances it is not so surprising that many of Mozart’s parodies and howlers in A musical joke fall on rather deaf ears nowadays; only the flagrantly wrong notes in the final bars raised a real belly-laugh from the audience at this concert. The problems caused to the horns by the use of the wrong crooks and attempts to play across impossible intervals, which with the use of the period natural horns of Mozart’s day sounded inevitably comic, have to be faked nowadays by players using modern instruments; and the satire on second-rate composers, with meaningless and unmotivated modulations and inane repetitions, have lost much of their impact when the original models have been deservedly consigned to oblivion. Mozart’s use of consecutive fifths and octaves, which would have been shocking to eighteenth century ears, sound quite normal nowadays when we have become accustomed to their use in more modern scores. Even the occasional excursions into bitonality sound rather jaded when we have heard this sort of thing done much more blatantly by the twentieth century neo-classicists. One is left instead with a rather charming piece of music, almost too well and comfortably played here.

For something which raises a genuine sense of amusement one has to turn to the symphonies of Haydn, whose sly and wry twists of melody, harmony and rhythm have more real substance for modern listeners. In the performance of the Haydn Fire Symphony which preceded the Mozart in the programme, the use of a harpsichord continuo occasionally obtruded, although it lent a piquant coloration to the music; otherwise it was a model of discretion, with its presence palpably felt rather than ostentatious. In the third movement of the Mozart, Robin Stowell’s delivery of the off-key cadenza brought a delightful touch of Nigel Kennedy’s upstaging of Marin Alsop at the Last Night of the Proms this year.

After the interval we were given a sparkling performance of the first suite from Handel’s Water Music, which made me realise how very seldom we hear this work nowadays in the concert hall. For the original performances on barges in the Thames, Handel sprinkled the music with liberal demands for repeats; here Mark Eager gave us just the right amount of these without overdoing it. Using a chamber version of the scoring (the original score was not published until 1788, nearly thirty years after the composer’s death) the players brought out all the light and shade in the score, and made one realise afresh just how bracingly right Handel’s contrasts in scoring are – with particularly good playing here from the winds. After a day spent listening to Klemperer’s pedestrian performance of Messiah (the CD review is to follow in due course) it was a pleasure to enjoy such nuanced and contrasted playing.

One’s only concern about the performance arose because of the conductor’s grouping of all the violins on the left of the stage, which robbed us of some of Handel’s antiphonal effects in the Overture and Hornpipe. One understands that Mark Eager is concerned that the violin tone should be consolidated in the modern manner, but all the composers on this programme would have expected the two sections of violins to be placed on opposite sides of the stage, and the playing here was sufficiently expert to defy such scrutiny.

It was disappointing that in such an obviously popular programme the hall was only half full. At their next concert on 9 November the Welsh Sinfonia are performing not only Vaughan Williams’s The lark ascending but also giving two premières of works by Michael Csanyi-Wills, whose On the idle hill of summer I reviewed so enthusiastically earlier this year. Those who can attend really should make a special effort to do so.

Paul Corfield Godfrey