A Taste of the Mozart Spring Festival

CanadaCanada Mozart, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky: Melanie Kreuger (soprano), Marion Newman (mezzo-soprano), Colin Ainsworth, Michael Colvin (tenors), Steven Hegedus, James Westman (baritones), UBC Opera Ensemble, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey (conductor), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 10-19.4.2015 (GN)

Mozart: Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K. 543
Masonic Funeral Music, K. 477
Requiem in D minor, K. 626
Rimsky-Korsakov: Mozart and Salieri, Op. 48
Tchaikovsky: Suite No. 4, Op. 61, ‘Mozartiana’


After all the ‘Mostly Mozart’ and ‘Mainly Mozart’ festivals that have been come and gone over the years, the Vancouver Symphony has now come up with their own Mozart-Plus festival, a four-concert series that combined works by Mozart with those by later composers that pay homage to the master. Mozart’s last three symphonies and the Requiem were core works, but some pieces did take us off the beaten track in an intriguing way. When did we last see Mozart’s Symphony No. 1 or Rimsky-Korsakov’s one-act opera, Mozart and Salieri, in a concert hall? Another programming influence was likely the celebrated movie Amadeus which was screened at the opening. The movie might have served as prelude to some version of an ‘authentic’ Mozart experience, but I would be stretching it to say that there was anything historically informed about the performances; and for all the focus on the piano in the film, there were no piano concertos represented either. Perhaps this is just as well: as British film director Phil Grabsky (In Search of Mozart) has suggested, Amadeus may largely be an exercise in hyperbole, not realism.

I was able to attend the opening and closing nights and, interestingly, I was at least as inspired by the works that were not by Mozart. Mozart and Salieri was written by Rimsky- Korsakov in 1897, based on a Pushkin text, and was actually given its premiere with the legendary bass Feodor Chalipan. It plays on one of the many (fictitious) reasons for Mozart’s early death: namely, that he was poisoned by his arch-rival. The music quotes directly from Don Giovanni, Marriage of Figaro and the Requiem, and adds ample original music as well. Here an economical ‘set’ with two chairs and not much more was employed on the front left of the stage, with the full orchestra shifted to the back right. Baritone James Westman’s portrayal of a somewhat severe and plotting Salieri and tenor Michael Colvin’s rendering of a buoyant, friendly and often innocent Mozart were very fine and made for a touching experience, not least when the young Mozart first premieres his ‘new’ piece on the piano, and when fragments from the Requiem softly enter towards the end.

Tchaikovsky’s ‘Mozartiana’ Suite was also refreshing, and played with enthusiasm. Bramwell Tovey gave the opening Gigue an inviting animation and contrast, and the following Minuet and Preghiera had just the right type of Mozartian elegance and flow. The latter registers the debt of Liszt’s piano transcription of Ave verum corpus, K. 618. The extended Theme and Variations were done with invigorating style, capturing much wit and play and building to an authoritative ending. The violin and clarinet solos were persuasive and appropriately colourful.

The better-known Mozart works were given creditable performances in the hands of Maestro Tovey but did not resonate as much with me. Symphony No. 39 received conscientious treatment, but one that was more robust than lithe and elegant. After an opening that was faster than the marked Adagio, the main Allegro moved alertly with convincing structure and poise. I found the following movement short-winded, needing more expanse and fluidity of phrase, while the ‘chugging’ rhythms of the Minuet required more firmness and precision. The finale had plenty of energy, but perhaps tended to brusqueness rather than buoyancy. With the strongly exposed horns and trumpets, this felt a bit like the rustic Haydn.

The dark, exotic wind colourings of the Masonic Funeral Music can hardly help but be engaging, and so it proved here. I did wish that the complement of strings had been smaller so that the graininess of the winds  ̶  basset horns in particular  ̶  could stand out clearly and bring a more starkly austere feeling.

The dark hues, mystery and power in Mozart’s Requiem have always had a remarkable spiritual effect too, unfolding with a special luminosity as the work balances the intimate and sublime with the dramatic. It was the last work in the festival, and Maestro Tovey evidently had to make a decision about what sort of interpretation was appropriate. He chose a more triumphal one, full of both Verdian passion and Handellian splendour, pushing many sections forward with noticeable urgency but not fostering much quiet repose. The audience clearly enjoyed the fervour, but I have some doubts that the singers could keep up. For all its enthusiasm, the choir’s blend was sometimes uneven, and the soloists had difficulty in settling into their own expressive line. It is the intimacy and quiet deliberation in this great work that I hold most dear.

While the quality of the performance varied, this Mozart Festival embodied a rewarding concept. However, I do think there should be at least one concerto interspersed somewhere between the orchestral works. I also admit that I have been waiting for a very long time to hear one enriching work that could easily have been performed: Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart.

Geoffrey Newman


Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com


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