Christopher Hogwood Remembered in Robert Levin/AAM Mozart Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart: Academy of Ancient Music / Robert Levin (conductor and forte-piano), Barbican Hall, London, 4.2.2015. (GD)

Mozart:  Overture to The Marriage of Figaro; Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor K 491; Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major K503; Symphony No. 35 in D major K 385 ‘Haffner’

This Mozart concert was devised by the late Christopher Hogwood, who would have conducted, and was devoted to his memory. Before the concert started Robert Levin gave us a mini-lecture on performance styles practised in Mozart’s era. He explained how Mozart would improvise a kind of tonal interlinking from one tonality to another; in tonight’s case the D major of the Figaro overture, to the C minor of the great Piano Concerto K 491. There is some evidence for this, but we also know that Mozart would frequently play a movement from a piano sonata, or maybe a whole sonata (concerts were far longer and more diverse than those we are accustomed to today). Possibly this could be an improvisation of a sonata he had not yet published, perhaps a composition stored in that extraordinary mind. And why did Levin not continue with this trend in the second half of the concert, in between the C major of K 503, and the D major of the Haffner Symphony? The Figaro Overture was given a suitably fastish performance, full of sparkle and agility; some of the subtle woodwind writing could have been clearer, but I suspect this was more to do with limitations of the Barbican acoustic. Also the wonderfully timed tutti crescendo, before the brief but sharp coda, could have been more rhythmically sustained.

The first movement Ritornello of K 491 was well sustained and sharply accented; the furious C minor over-lapping and dissonant string figurations punctuated by trumpets and timpani – with incisive and fresh ‘period’ textures – had a distinctly Sturm und Drang tone. Again the woodwinds did not quite make their grainy and trenchant effect, and the horns tended at times to ‘glare’. In the complex and extended development section which encompasses a constellation of tonalities, some as remote from each other as E flat and F minor. I occasionally lost the sense of total rapport or dialogue between Levin and the orchestra. I had little sense of the solo part elaborartely interweaving in and out of the movement’s superb tonal juxtaposition and counterpoint. As was usual practice Mozart did not write out a cadenza leaving a blank space for the soloist to extemporise. In this concerto, unlike his other piano concerti, Mozart does not indicate a concluding cadenza flourish. Instead the orchestra re-enters with a connecting passage of two bars not to be found anywhere else in this movement, but I didn’t hear this clearly. Levin’s quite long and extemporised cadenza was impressive in its various registers of C minor and other juxtaposing tonalities.

The E flat Larghetto, in five-part rondo form was nicely paced and phrased by both soloist and orchestra now sounding much more together. The beautiful woodwind sequences were stylishly played with woodwind more to the fore. The movement’s contrasting of tonal registers between C minor and E flat were well articulated. Together with the Piano Concerto in G, K 453 this is the only one to deploy a finale in variation form. Again textures were sharp and clear. I am not sure that Levin achieved a sustained Allegretto line and I also missed the sense of dialogue between fortepiano and orchestra in the concerto’s final variation in 6/8 time. It was not really commensurate with what Donald Tovey described as the ‘summing up of the work’s pathos’. It was most probably this haunting phrase that made Beethoven exclaim to Ries as they listened to it during a rehearsal: ‘Oh, my dear fellow, we will never get an idea like this.’

As tonight’s programme note reminds us, for Donald Tovey K503 was the ‘archetype’ the ( locus classicus) of the classical concerto. And his eleven page analysis remains unsurpassed in its musical insight and erudition.  The opening Ritornello is one of Mozart’s most extended and complex in terms tonal contrast: C major and C minor, E flat and a concluding flourish on the dominant G. Also, like K 491, Mozart’s orchestration is opulent in the best sense of the word. With jubilant trumpets and drums a note of festive solemnity is vividly projected. Most of this bravura splendour was well delivered tonight, although on several occasions I missed the sense of expectation. I had no sense of what Tovey heard as the resplendent ‘anticipation’ of an imaginary choir entering with the psalm Dixit Dominus at the Ritornello’s splendid conclusion; also little sense of Tovey’s ‘mysterious soft shadows,that give a solemn depth to the tone’. 

This occasional lack of line, of coherence, emanating from insufficient dialogue between soloist/director and orchestra of course opens up the whole question of the limits of soloist direction particularly in such grand and complex works. It is, of course, what Mozart would have expected and it can sound splendid with the likes of Edwin Fischer, more recently Josh van Immerseel (also on fortepiano) and Pierre-Laurant Aimard. But also, in works of such grand design as K491 and K503 an empathetic dialogue between soloist and conductor can bring splendid results; as heard with Gieseking and Rosbaud (particularly in K503), Barenboim and Klemperer (also in K503), Brendel and Mackerras (again in K503), and also of course in Levin’s own fine recordings of the Mozart piano concertos with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. In the quasi-operatic concertante sequences involving woodwinds in the first movement development section, and again in the opulent E flat dialogue between soloist and woodwinds in the F major second movement Andante, the sound of the woodwinds. with some alluring phrasing, coming straight out of any of the great Da Ponte operas,  came over as somehow recessed (again no doubt partly to do with the Barbican’s limited acoustic).

The rondo finale with its wonderfully subtle dance inflections lacked a certain elegance and ‘swagger’, as Thomas Beecham used to say. The mock gavotte-like features here, with sudden declensions in to minor key territory, didn’t really ‘sound’ Although in the coda itself the three ryhthmed connecting links between the main sections attained a certain impressive unity, an ambient lilt,  in orchestral terms. Throughout these two great concertos Levin played very well, with tactfully chosen embellishments; never sounding excessive. This was particularly the case in the two first movement cadenzas, as already mentioned. But the fortepiano really needs a kinder acoustic than the Barbican can offer. Indeed I had to strain my ears to sort out what was being played, especially in the passages of intricate dialogue with the orchestra.

Mozart retained a certain affection for his ‘Haffner’ Symphony. In a letter to his father, with a touch of humour, in 1783 he writes: ‘My new Haffner symphony has positively amazed me. for I had forgotten every single note of it. It surely must produce a good effect’. More interestingly, in the same letter, he tells his father that ‘The first Allegro must be played with great fire, the last – as fast as possible’. Closer to our own times the symphony became a kind of calling card piece for such eminent maestri as Sir Thomas Beecham, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Karl Bohm,  and Toscanini, though only the last mentioned played the  finale as Mozart wanted.

So how did Levin ‘score’ here? Well, he certainly played the first movement, with its two-note octave drop, turning around into a two-note octave leap upwards, and its singular thematic development; no development section as such, with plenty of brio, nice crisp trumpets and incisive timps. And there was a nice sense of flow in the serenade-like second movement and a contrasting middle-section with its tone of syncopated turbulence. Thankfully Levin gave us the first section repeat.  There was certainly an energetic, festive feel to the Menuetto, and the trio contrasted well. On one or two occasions I could have done with more rhythmic incisiveness and finesse. Levin certainly took the finale Presto probably as fast as possible, as Mozart wanted.  The movement has a fantastic range of bravura effects, with its overflowing vitality and swirling semi-quaver figures. It even features a theme from Die Entfuhrung, Osmin’s Rollicking aria ‘Ha, wie will ich triumphieren’ (Ah, how I shall triumph), composed a couple of months earlier in the same year of 1782.  It was instructive to view Levin’s unconventional conducting gestures; with two arms straight up, as though at a  swimming championship, and much zig-zagging bodily energy. Styles of conducting – gestural codes and stick technique – don’t seem to be as important as they once were for the conductor’s art, But despite all this Levin mostly got the results he, and more importantly Mozart wanted. Overall this was a fine ‘Haffner’ Symphony, quite worthy to stand comparison with the best current recordings from the likes of Adam Fischer, Nicolaus Harnoncourt and Franz Bruggen, all practitioners of ‘period’ style performance.

Geoff Diggines

1 thought on “Christopher Hogwood Remembered in Robert Levin/AAM Mozart Concert”

  1. Some of the so-called ‘great conductors’ of the 20th century looked rather cinematic, not to say Hollywood. In the 18th Century, orchestras would have been led from the harpsichord, fortepiano, oboe or violin. They would have been part of the ensemble, as is Mr Levin when he conducts. As long as they get what they want from the orchestra, who cares where there arms are?


Leave a Comment