The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra Brings Radiant Mozart to Oxford

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart  Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano), Javier Zafra (bassoon), Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Gottfried von der Goltz (director): Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 14.11.2014 (CR)

Serenata notturna in D major, K239
Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, K414
Divertimento in F major, K138
Bassoon Concerto in B flat major, K191
Symphony No. 33 in B flat major, K319

Whether deliberately or not, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra chose a radiant selection of Mozart’s works which are barely overcast by any turn towards minor-keys – just the thing to cheer a dark November night in the week of Armistice Day when one’s thoughts inevitably turn towards decline and decay.

The reduced forces of the FBO brought out the music’s chamber-like qualities, particularly in the Serenata notturna and the Divertimento, both conjuring up the festivities of entertainments at the Salzburg court. The Serenata was suavely performed, even though it was bright and brisk, whilst the timpani played with hard sticks, giving the music extra bite. The FBO brought out the light and shade of the contrasting phrases of the minuet second movement, and then exhibited a winning sense of humour and fun in the skittish, almost mischievous, rondo theme of the finale, which goaded on the timpanist and double bassist to brief cadenzas – in the former case with Charlie Fischer striking the drums directly with his hands and raising one of them at the end to fling off all possible reverberations to the audience. There was a similar bustle and energy in the performance of the Divertimento, but brought off with their customary stylish control. As elsewhere, it surely helped that Gottfried von der Goltz directed from the violin, leading his fellow performers through his interpretations from within the music itself, rather than imposed from without.

In between came the Piano Concerto No. 12 – the only work in this programme of Mozart’s acknowledged maturity. Often approached as the subtle, mellow little brother of the other A major Piano Concerto, No. 23, in contrast this performance exuded urgency. Indeed the first movement (only marked Allegro) sounded impatient, but the impetus given to some of the more striking harmonic details, such as the augmented sixths towards the end of the movement, pointed up the drama. The second movement was long-breathed, as it should be, flowing as one seamless whole from beginning to end – indeed one commentator has likened it to the glow of a sunset. The finale returned to the buoyant mood of the first movement. Kristian Bezuidenhout performed on his own fortepiano by Anton Walter, a Viennese maker apparently praised by Mozart. Bezuidenhout’s playing was in perfect accord with the orchestra and he elicited two distinctive tonal qualities from his instrument. On the one hand there was a percussive but delicate clarity in the treble, suited to carrying Mozart’s ever-fresh melodies; and on the other, there was a mellower, richer sonority in the lower range, enabling the keyboard’s harmonies to integrate well with those of the FBO.

Bezuidenhout remained at the keyboard to contribute to the accompaniment in the Bassoon Concerto and the Symphony No. 33. For the reason just stated, this addition was not as obtrusive and distracting as it might have been. In the outer movements of both compositions, there was a boisterous energy again, as in the Piano Concerto earlier on, but carried through with panache, rather than just hurrying along, as one often encounters with historically informed ensembles. Only the finale of the Bassoon Concerto was pushed on perhaps too forcefully, since the basic tempo is more that of a graceful minuet. Javier Zafra’s solo performance on the bassoon possessed a darkly silken, seamless tone, and even the potentially ungainly leaps in register which Mozart employs to show off the virtuoso technique of the performer were neatly handled, resulting in a performance of considerable elegance. There was also a veiled richness of tone in the FBO strings during the slow movement, making for an ideal realisation of that uniquely Mozartian gift of effortless simplicity.

For all the vigour of this account of the Symphony No. 33, sufficient tension was sustained in order to render its symphonic sweep properly. Nor did its briskness tend towards a nervous, brittle character, and in the slow movement there was the sense of a deep current flowing underneath the surface, already anticipating Beethoven, such as the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony.

The single most conspicuous aspect of the FBO’s performances generally, was that the performers really enjoyed the music as the expression of real emotions, not as a mere exercise in speeding through the notes for its own sake. Such zest was evident in the brief finale from the Symphony No. 10, K74, given as the encore.

Curtis Rogers

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