Magical Mozart from Mackintosh and Mews

New ZealandNew Zealand Mozart: Catherine Mackintosh (violin), Douglas Mews (fortepiano), The Old Library Arts Centre, Whangarei, New Zealand. 10.5.2016 (Pse)

Mozart – Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 18 in G, KV301
Mozart – Variations on ‘Hélas, J’ai Perdu mon Amant’ for Violin and Piano in G,
Mozart – Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 27 in E minor, KV304
Mozart – Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 26 in B flat, KV378
Mozart – Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 30 in C, KV403

Whilst waiting impatiently for the date of this recital to claw its way into the present, I fell to musing on “authenticity” – which term, for convenience, I’ll use to cover “authentic performance”, “historically informed”, “period/original/reproduction instruments”, and sundry other terms that presently refuse to pop up into the forefront of my brain. Back in my youth, freshly fired by the love of music, there was no such thing as authenticity, unless you admit the “early music” fraternity, those obscure, zany characters who, flying on a wing and a prayer (or so it seemed), had a whale of a time recklessly messing around with rebecs, viols, regals, shawms, sackbutts and what-have you – and, quite coincidentally, furnishing the rest of us with endless fun!

What happened to transform these “historically ill-informed” high-jinks into the intensely serious business they have since become? I get the impression that it had much to do with contemporary performances of pre-Romantic composers such as Bach and Handel. During the Twentieth Century, whilst the notes as written remained exactly the same, the forces playing those notes evolved significantly – increasingly more powerful instruments and larger ensembles were giving performances that tended to become ever more ponderous and bloated. Ultimately, this unseemly trend reached the point where somebody just had to protest, “Surely, this can’t be a Good Thing, can it?” At which point was conceived the latter-day “authentic” movement.

Exhaustive research and a deal of guesswork (inspired or otherwise) put authenticists into a position where they could perform “old” works “exactly as their composers intended”. Inevitably, since we cannot ever know for sure (which, to be fair, the more conservative authenticists readily admitted), the results were, are – and probably always will be – controversial. The fact remains, though, that authentic performances must at the very least bring us much closer to the composers’ intentions.

In passing, this reminds me of a little tale that I simply must tell you: Raymond Wood, an old friend who was both exceedingly knowledgeable and hugely opinionated (and, what’s more, proud of the latter!), once declared, “I can’t stand this ‘authentic performance’ nonsense; the strings are so horribly thin and scratchy – and, for goodness’s sake, there’s no vibrato! It’s just awful.” I timidly offered, “But, Ray, they’ve done their homework, and the odds are that that’s how it sounded, back then.” Ray snorted in complete and utter disgust. “Well, they might have had to put up with it then – but that doesn’t mean we should have to put up with it now!”

He might have had a point. However, one thing even Ray could not deny is that authenticity has done an inestimable service, both in rediscovering the true vigour and vitality of the music of Bach and his ilk, and in giving performers on modern instruments pause for serious thought about how they should approach “vintage” music.

With 40 years’ front-line experience of authentic music-making, notably as leader of the Academy of Ancient Music and director of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, violinist Catherine Mackintosh no doubt could explain things far better than I. However, her business was not dissertation, but performing – on a venerable 1703 violin (with a bow slightly less precisely dated as “Eighteenth Century”). Interestingly enough, this violin came into her possession beefed up to thoroughly modern standards! Naturally, before putting it to use, she had it thoroughly “de-beefed down” to its original state.

Catherine’s recital partner, Douglas Mews, a prominent NZ player and teacher of organ, fortepiano and harpsichord, is equally adept in the field of authenticism. He had brought along a fortepiano of a vintage similar to Catherine’s violin. Thus, the stage was set for Whangarei Music Society’s keenly attentive audience to savour some Mozart Violin Sonatas (Nos. 18, 26, 27 and 30), along with the Variations on “Hélas, J’ai Perdu mon Amant” – all played, maybe not exactly as their composer intended, but near enough to set speculative synapses tingling. As my experience of authenticity is almost exclusively limited to recordings, I for one was all agog.

Of course, ears familiar only with full-toned modern instruments would have found the sound startling. The fortepiano, short on sustaining and having a slightly “papery” quality, seemed feeble; the gut-stringed violin, played with the merest smidgen of vibrato (and even then only momentarily, when settling onto long notes), seemed nigh-on emaciated.

Yet, how quickly the ear – unless it’s Ray’s! – adapts, firstly to apprehend the distinctive musical qualities of these instruments, secondly to appreciate how remarkably well they suit Mozart’s elegant intimacy, and thirdly to realise that, really, Mozart had fitted his music to these particular qualities. But, would the ear have been so readily persuaded without Catherine and Douglas’s consummate craftsmanship?

I suspect not. Individually, their playing had all the precision, spirit and expressive depth your heart could desire. But, as a duo, they were – how can I put this? – utterly gobsmacking. Their togetherness extended through shifts of mood, tempo and dynamics to an uncanny, almost telepathic unanimity in matters of accents and even (I kid you not) rubato. Quite honestly, if I closed my eyes, it felt as though there was only one person playing!

As the programme progressed, I also became increasingly aware that some climaxes seemed to be packing a fair old punch. This struck me as odd, considering that their instruments fell way short of their modern counterparts in terms of sheer power. This could be taken as another aspect of aural adaptation, but again I feel sure that it was really down to the skill with which the players crafted those climaxes, tweaking the tension through stresses and phrasing, and holding back on the decibels until the precise moment when they’d have optimum impact. But, however they did it, it certainly did the trick.

The performances were not only unremittingly delightful, but also food for thought. For, we all know (don’t we?) that the earliest “violin sonatas” were really “keyboard sonatas with violin”, the violin being merely an accompanist, and that it was only in the Nineteenth Century that it emerged as an equal partner, and then, justifying the term “violin sonata”, even the dominant one. Needless to say, Mozart was a prime mover in precipitating this process.

I couldn’t say whether it was their mode of playing or some intrinsic qualities of their instruments (or probably both?), but these performances made me much more conscious of these evolving rôles than I ever have been when listening to the same music in “modern” performances. To say that whilst Douglas’s fortepiano tended to rule the roost in the busier or more forceful passages, Catherine’s violin generally came to the fore in the lyrical, seems to be simply (and limply) stating the downright obvious. Yet, it didn’t seem at all “obvious” – it sort of wafted across as some kind of discreetly divine revelation.

But there was more. Apparently not content with giving a captivating display of musicianship, they also proved themselves quite nifty actors! They punctuated the programme with further fascination, in the form of convincingly characterised readings from Mozart family letters, including the young Mozart’s demure, but nonetheless devastating description of a female pupil and her utterly outrageous attempts at flirtation. In summary, then, this was “some enchanted evening” – with knobs on.

Paul Serotsky

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