Top-Class Mozart Performances Grace London’s Newest Concert Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart: Ruth Killius (viola), Royal Northern Sinfonia, Thomas Zehetmair (conductor/violin). Milton Court Concert Hall, London, 18.10.2013 (MB)

Divertimento in D major, KV 136/125a
Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, KV 364/320d
Symphony no.39 in E-flat major, KV 543


A new chamber-size hall for London as part of the Guildhall-Barbican complex: Milton Court Concert Hall – which seems already to be abbreviated to Milton Court, though that strictly is the name of a building including a theatre, a studio theatre, rehearsal rooms, etc. – certainly showed its worth in this concert. The acoustic is bright, warm, and detailed. Now if only London could finally get its act together and build a decent large-scale hall… That, however, no matter how sad and urgent the case, is an argument for another day.

Today’s concern is an outstanding Mozart concert from the Royal Northern Sinfonia and Thomas Zehetmair. It opened with the first of Mozart’s so-called ‘Salzburg symphonies’, not actually reckoned as forming part of his listed symphonies, but rather a divertimento for strings. From the very outset, the first movement, and indeed the work as a whole, pulsated with life, Mozart seemingly as much in the bloodstream of this country’s only full-time chamber orchestra as of the Salzburg-born Zehetmair. Unfailingly stylish, apparently straightforward, this performance, impelled by a proper sense of formal dynamism, benefited from a clear sense of harmonic rhythm, the charm and musical sense of antiphonally-seated violins, and a lively sense of characterisation. Minor-mode excursions had a real sense of broaching new territory.  And with repeats taken, this divertimento seemed anything but slight. The slow movement was warm, graceful, again with a sense of ‘rightness’ to Zehetmair’s chosen tempo. Phrasing was again unobtrusive but telling: no ‘period’ traffic-calmer bumps here. At least as important, there was, even in a new City of London concert hall, a crucial sense of the magical outdoor serenade of a Salzburg evening. I was put in mind of Sándor Végh’s work with the Camerata Academica Salzburg, and there can be little higher praise than that. The finale was alert, witty, fresh: full of the young Mozart’s joy to be alive, a joy already unmistakeably personal in style, whatever its antecedents. Mozart’s counterpoint was conveyed with loving sternness, his orchestral tricks – they ought to be Haydnesque, but they could only be Mozart’s – despatched with loving flair.

If that divertimento is a sparkling, far from callow, early work, the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola is a towering masterpiece. Zehetmair was joined by his wife and regular duo partner, Ruth Killius. Both turned towards and played with their respective sections in the opening ritornello. The Sinfonia’s wind proved just as warm, rounded, sparkling as its strings. Solo lines emerged from what had gone before as the soloists turned toward the audience. (Zehetmair would turn back to conduct when he was not playing.) There was a true experience of dialogue between all the players, not just the soloists. Though there was plenty of individual ‘character’ to the soloists’ performance, it seemed to be the character of the instruments and Mozart’s writing for them, rather than the product of externally applied – or mis-applied – ‘personality’. Oboes and horns were equally brimming with Mozartian magic. Yet this was certainly not prettified or manicured Mozart; beauty rather emerged through an eminently human performance. Might I find a cavil? If pushed, I suppose there was not much sense to be heard of the autumnal, but Mozart in springtime worked more than well enough. The slow movement was taken quicker than once would have been the case, but at no loss to its tragic songfulness; it still emerged as a son of its counterpart in the E-flat piano concerto, KV 271. Killius’s viola tone sounded, if anything, still richer, Zehetmair’s violin perhaps less silken, more golden. Violin and viola sang to each other as if operatic lovers. Certainly a vital Mozartian erotic charge was present, whether in the tension of the cadenza or elsewhere; so too was the unmistakeable quality of an orchestra smiling through tears. The finale was bright, bushy-tailed, irresistible, and just as full of musical energy as its predecessors. Indeed, it emerged as the miraculous reconciler of the musical tendencies heard in them. We heard as an encore a duo for violin and viola by Heinz Holliger, the second of his Three Sketches, expressly intended as an encore to this work, viola scordatura and all. It benefited from a similar questing, captivating energy.

At least as high, arguably higher still, in the masterpiece stakes is the Symphony no.39. Though hardly a Cinderella, it nevertheless occasionally seems a little overshadowed by the two symphonies that follow. Indeed, I plead guilty, in a recent programme note for a Salzburg concert in which the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle played all three, to having slightly short-changed it. There was no short-changing here, the first movement’s introduction imbued with a grandeur often missing from chamber-orchestral performances. There was already a quality of pulsating harmonic energy similar to that experienced throughout the first half. If, in a somewhat superficial sense of sonority and attack, Zehetmair’s performance might have sounded strikingly modern when compared with recordings by Klemperer and Böhm, at a deeper level, there was much in common, not least its inexorability, harmonic and motivic. And so, the exposition proper emerged as an inevitable outcome of that introduction. One thing I was less sure about was the agogic touches, not especially exaggerated, and quite ear-catching in themselves; however, they worked less well, perhaps, upon the repeat of the exposition and in the recapitulation, sounding both unduly rehearsed and all too expected. Nevertheless, the concision of the development section registered with due shock: the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth seems almost expansive by comparison. The woodwind sounded lovely, perhaps especially so in the recapitulation, whose climax took one’s breath away as it should. The slow movement I was a little less sure about. It says ‘Andante con moto,’ I suppose, but nevertheless sounded a little too much on the fast side, however sensitively phrased. That said, I sensed a kinship with Schubert when he employed a similar tempo marking, so the fault probably lay with this curmudgeon. The minor-key eruption sounded properly furious; woodwind balm never quite rid our minds of its shadow, which, in a turbulent reading, was doubtless Zehetmair’s point. In context, the brusqueness of the conclusion made a good deal of sense. The minuet was taken at one-to-a-bar with a vengeance, probably the fastest I have heard. And yet, this minuet as scherzo seemed to work in practice, perhaps on account of the security of Zehetmair’s harmonic understanding. The trio relaxed slightly, offering delightful bubbling from the woodwind, even a small instance of clarinet ornamentation. Whilst energetic, the finale did not mistake Allegro for Presto; it remained finely articulated and directed, with plenty of room to breathe. Mozart’s helter-skelter twists and turns were followed and communicated with dramatic flair. I was almost convinced by the taking of the second repeat, blaring trumpets and all. It is difficult to imagine any Mozartian resisting – and would anyone have tried?

Mark Berry