United Kingdom Mozart: Robert Taub (piano), London Mozart Players / Simon Blendis (concertmaster), Minster Church of St Andrew, Plymouth 9.3.2019. (PRB)
Mozart – Serenade No.6 in D major K. 239 Serenata Notturna; Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor K.466; Symphony No.41 in C major K.551 Jupiter
This was the inaugural concert of the new Musica Viva Concert Series, with the remit to bring internationally acclaimed performers back to Plymouth, in the UK’s far South West. Its stated aim is to ‘inspire, educate, challenge, and unite’ audiences by presenting world-class musicians in a number of different situations: public performances, open rehearsals and informal talks.
At the heart of this initiative is the University of Plymouth, and specifically its Arts Institute. For a number of years this functioned under the banner of Peninsula Arts. Its then Director of Music Simon Ible delighted audiences in the city and its environs with regular musical events. Those often featured the Ten Tors Orchestra, and, more recently, the Peninsula Arts Sinfonietta, ensembles which comprise virtually the best available players in the area, all of whom earn their living through music – unlike Plymouth’s own eighty-strong Symphony Orchestra, one of the oldest strictly amateur ensembles in the country. They have all played their part in bringing symphonic repertoire to the area.
When Ible relinquished the baton some year ago, The Arts Institute (still Peninsula Arts) were extremely fortunate in encouraging eminent American-born concert pianist, academic and festival organiser Robert Taub to take up the position. Ible had already organised a number of themed concert series, but his approach and that of Taub’s would reflect their different musical expertise and interests. I had a chat with Taub towards the end of 2018 about his new Musica Viva Series. He wanted to make the point that there should be nothing unusual about the London Mozart Players (LMP) – an ensemble of world repute, whom he had chosen to open the series – coming to Plymouth. The audiences here have not always turned out in their hundreds, but Taub was confident that people should flock to see a first-class product. He also wanted to reach out and involve the audience; one of the ideas was a short pre-concert talk.
Judging by how the church was packed full well before the advertised start-time, Taub could certainly tick two of his boxes already: employ a top ensemble to bring in the punters, and then give everyone present a chance to find out a little more about the works to be heard. Taub had enlisted the help both of LMP Principal Cellist Sebastian Comberti, and a Model D Steinway Grand (hired by the Arts Institute direct from Steinway & Sons, London in another instance of ‘only the best will do’).
This first-time pre-concert talk fell a little flat in actual presentation. A single hand-held microphone just could not accommodate both speakers, especially when Taub moved to demonstrate something at the piano. (Hands-free radio microphones might be a way to go.) The talk highlighted some interesting points to be picked up in the programme, essentially to do with the piano concerto, and given in a most congenial and by no means overly technical fashion.
It was especially auspicious that the University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Judith Petts, CBE was then able to welcome the audience to this first concert in the Musica Viva Concert Series. That ticked another of Taub’s boxes – Plymouth’s Mother Church was filled to capacity for the event.
To have the best Mozart exponents onside is not always enough. In a one-composer programme, the choice of repertoire must also be exactly right. Taub and the LMP could scarcely have come up with anything better. The Serenata Notturna provided a delightfully light-hearted concert opener; the strings and timpani were clearly having a great time partying through each movement. Such music looks fun to play, but the tautness of the ensemble and extremely wide dynamic range are not easy to achieve. In the absence of a conductor (as was the case here), players often communicate by a mere eye-movement or almost imperceptible nod. It would be almost invidious to single out any one performer, but Principal Double Bass Stacey Watton’s short solo just before the end of the final Rondo really captured the jovial mood to sheer perfection, so effectively paving the way for the more serious mood of what followed.
Robert Taub joined the players in Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto, one of his only two concertos in the minor key, and well and truly couched in the prevailing proto-Romantic Sturm und Drang (‘Storm and Stress’) style – as well as being in a key of special significance for Mozart. The agitated nature of the orchestral opening was finely pointed, in readiness for the piano’s plaintive opening gambit. Both pianist and orchestra successfully negotiated the syncopated accompaniment, while hardly compromising the integrity of the ensemble. LMP concertmaster Simon Blendis played his part admirably here, in working partnership with Taub throughout; the use of shared dynamics, once again across such a wide range, was particularly impressive. Taub’s exciting rendition of Beethoven’s cadenza brought the opening Allegro to an exhilarating, yet equally hushed conclusion.
The enthralling Romanze in B flat elicited some lovely playing from both soloist and orchestra. There were beautifully-shaped lines in the serene opening, and some truly dramatic contrasts in the stormy middle section, with its bold octave writing for the piano. Solo woodwind added to the magical effect of this slow movement, before an arpeggiated ‘call to arms’ signalled the start of the final Rondo. This very much picked up where the first movement left off, with some attractive interplay between soloist and orchestra. Neat articulation and nimble finger-work from the piano were very much the order of the day. In their pre-concert talk, Taub and Comberti had slightly given the game away as far as the work’s conclusion is concerned. Despite all its serious overtones, the music does eventually turn around and ends with some degree of jollity in the tonic major key D.
The LMP wisely decided to end their long-awaited visit to Plymouth with Mozart’s final and longest symphony, the Jupiter, one of the greatest symphonies in the whole of classical music. This a truly well-deserved accolade comes with strings attached. Its themes are probably very familiar, so for it to leave a lasting impression, the players must bring something new to the table. The fact that the London Mozart Players achieved all this with room to spare, attests to the sheer quality of this top international ensemble, and its direction from the front. Everyone thoroughly deserved their final standing ovation.
All those present should feel indebted to the University of Plymouth, its Arts Institute and Director of Music Robert Taub for having the belief and the resources to bring artists of such high quality back to the city.
Philip R Buttall