Howard Shelley’s Mozart: A Tasty Lunchtime Treat

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart: London Mozart Players, Howard Shelley (piano/director). St John’s Smith Square, London, 21.9.2016. (MB)

Mozart – Piano Concerto no.20 in D minor, KV 466

For the first of these lunchtime Mozart Explored concerts at St John’s, Smith Square, the London Mozart Players had offered the audience the opportunity to choose which of Mozart’s piano concertos – from those already performed in the series – would be played. We are all Romantics now, so perhaps it is no surprise that the D minor Concerto won. Howard Shelley first offered a few thematic pointers: not really an analysis, nothing contextual, more in the manner of old-fashioned (not that there is anything wrong with that) ‘musical appreciation’. Then we heard – perhaps ironically, given my musing as to why this concerto might have been chosen – a performance that tended to stress Mozart’s Classicism as opposed to his incipient Romanticism.

The virtues of Shelley’s – and the orchestra’s – approach were immediately apparent. There was nothing remotely murky to the lower strings at the opening to the first movement. Precision was married to dramatic power, the two shown to be dependent on each other, not fuzzy antitheses. There was pathos too, whether from angelic woodwind or sighing violins. The almost vintage ‘Classicism’ of Shelley’s tone upon entering put me in mind of earlier (often English) pianists, Ian Hobson one who came to mind (if only because a cassette of his was one of the first Mozart piano concerto recordings I owned). There was nothing of the ‘historically informed’ to what we heard, but nor was there anything of, say, Daniel Barenboim’s grander, more Furtwänglerian approach. Weighting of notes, of phrases was always considered, never pedantic. It was not an unyielding reading, perhaps most notably when it came to the second group’s reiteration of the tonic minor during the recapitulation, but the basic pulse was always clear. Sometimes I missed the fire of a Barenboim, but one cannot have everything in a single reading. The Beethoven cadenza, however, whilst given with great dignity, sounded more different from the rest than it might have done in a more ‘Romantic’ performance of the work as a whole: nothing wrong with that, but it attested to a somewhat different conception of Mozart.

Again, to continue with our too-easy typology, the slow movement sounded more ‘Classical’ than ‘Romantic’. Its performance was possessed of a quiet, yet far from cold, dignity and integrity – not so quiet, of course, during the (relatively) tempestuous central episode, which retained admirable clarity. Shelley offered some light piano ornamentation. Counterpoint and melody were held in good Mozartian equipoise during the finale. It was a dramatic reading, which yet did not jettison the virtues of what had gone before. Hummel’s cadenza – Shelley is quite a Hummel enthusiast – was interesting to hear, although I found it much as I find Hummel’s music in general: lots of passagework, a little more ‘Romantic’, no great depth. (Give me Beethoven any day!) The D major coda inescapably has one think of Don Giovanni, albeit without the cynicism or alienation of its final scene; so it did here. We were treated to an accomplished traversal of the finale to the Jupiter Symphony as an encore.

Mark Berry

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