Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra celebrates Leopold Mozart’s Three-hundredth Birthday

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Leopold & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Paul Merkelo (trumpet), Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Marios Papadopoulos & Hannah Schneider (conductors). Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 14.11.2019. (CR)

Haydn – Symphony No.92 in G major, ‘Oxford’; Trumpet Concerto in E flat major

Leopold Mozart – Trumpet Concerto in D major

W. A. Mozart – Symphony No.39 in E flat major, K543

Three hundred years to the very day, the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra celebrated the birthday of Leopold Mozart – an event that has otherwise been very little observed in the musical world this year, despite the penchant for anniversaries. Admittedly his fame rests not so much on his compositions, as for his treatise on violin playing and, of course, for being the father of probably the finest and most famous musician who ever lived. And, even though his compositions are, at best, competent rather than inspired or inventive, it is surely of interest to hear the work of the only teacher young Wolfgang ever had in a formal didactic sense. In Leopold’s symphonies one can hear a similar style as that of his son’s earliest efforts in the 1760s, that short-lived era of the musical Rococo. Whilst taking the opportunity of casting a light upon Leopold’s output it seemed a pity that some of those symphonies were not performed alongside his relatively well-known Trumpet Concerto here – even if only the attributed, but entertaining ‘Toy’ Symphony – or perhaps either of his concertos for horn or trombone.

Still, the audience had cause to be thankful for the lustrous performance of the Trumpet Concerto (1762) from Paul Merkelo with the modern strings of the OPO, complete with harpsichord accompaniment. The concerto was written for the natural trumpet and so Merkelo’s seamlessly executed melodies on a valved instrument made the music sound all too effortless, but contemporary audiences are unlikely to object to that. By contrast, Haydn’s example (1796) was the first concerto composed for the newly-invented valve trumpet, meaning that the instrument could now cope with all the chromatic notes of the scale and modulate into any remote key required of it (as Haydn exploits in this work). More so than in Mozart’s concerto, Merkelo projected a bold, golden tone for the grander Classical expression of Haydn’s work. All three movements were taken by Marios Papadopoulos at a fairly broad tempo, allowing a pregnant expansiveness in the opening movement, but resulting in a slightly earth-bound Andante. The Allegro finale was airier in texture, with Merkelo’s solo unexpectedly lither here than in the Andante, and an excitable speeding up in the Concerto’s final bars springing another surprise, albeit a thrilling one.

Opening the concert was the symphony which Haydn himself presented in the very same venue in 1791 (to great acclaim) when the University of Oxford conferred upon him a doctorate at its annual honorary degrees ceremony, hence its nickname. The OPO’s assistant conductor Hannah Schneider brought out the portentousness of the work’s slow beginning, though it might have exuded more mystery, if only for the sake of contrast with their performance of the rest of the symphony which was robust and assured. A fairly heavily textured, even Romantic, approach to the upheavals of the second movement foreshadowed Beethoven. A less strenuous articulation of the Minuet’s Trio section would have brought out its pert syncopations with more alacrity, and thereby make the link with Beethoven’s rhythmic innovations in the scherzos of his symphonies more explicit. But the stately pace of the Minuet itself conjured up the aristocratic world in which Haydn had spent much of his career prior to the composition of his late, great symphonies such as this one, and the bustling horns in the chattering finale radiated this composer’s characteristic bonhomie and wit.

Papadopoulos brought the programme to a conclusion with a similarly broad, even leisurely account of Mozart’s Symphony No.39 – the first of the three symphonic miracles which Mozart brought to fruition in what turned out to be his final contributions to the genre. Unusually for Mozart, the first movement employs a slow introduction, in the manner of Haydn’s late symphonies, and this performance invested that and the succeeding Allegro with the solemnity that is a hallmark of Mozart’s writing in the key of E flat major. The OPO carried that over into the second movement – not exactly ‘con moto’ as marked, but Papadopoulos turned the little marching phrases expressively and elongated them suggestively. The Minuet and Trio flowed cheerfully, particularly as it should with the lilting dialogue among the woodwind of the latter section, but the overly broad finale failed to capture fully the humour that is present in another significantly Haydnesque movement. Even so the high spirits of this and the other works in this programme shone through, constituting a welcome diversion on a cold November night.

Curtis Rogers

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