Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic treat Salzburg to a Mozart concert of near-perfection

AustriaAustria Salzburg Mozartwoche [2] – Mozart: Radek Baborák (horn), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim (piano, conductor). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 25.1.2020. (MB)

Mozart – Symphony No.33 in B-flat major K319; Horn Concerto No.3 in E-flat major K447; Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor K466

Mozart’s music requires but one thing in performance: perfection. Needless to say, it rarely receives what it needs. That is hardly the fault of us mere mortals; it is, however, our fault when we impose absurd ideological constraints upon his music, consciously reducing and impoverishing it. On this occasion, I am delighted to report that an all-Mozart concert came as close as I can recall to that perfection in performance it required. Radek Baborák, the Vienna Philharmonic, and Daniel Barenboim did Mozart, his music, and their audience proud.

Bewilderingly neglected – have I ever heard it in concert before? – the B-flat major Symphony, KV 319, benefited from that ‘rightness’ that is difficult to put either into words or practice, but which one knows when one hears it. Tempo, balance, articulation, sound, line: everything was there, just as it should be, in the way one used to hear from Sir Colin Davis, though never quite to be identified. (Near-perfection takes more forms than one might suspect.) Barenboim clearly heard the first movement, indeed the whole work, as if in a single breath, but that did not preclude a host of characters making their mark on Mozart’s invisible stage. The development section contrasted and complemented what had gone before. There was no need to make a meal of the four-note contrapuntal tag that to us inevitably presages the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony; it was simply put to its post-Fuxian work, thereby blending in and generating. A graceful return smiled and led to a thrilling climax and coda.

Poised and poignant, the slow movement also boasted an oboe solo to die for, not that the Vienna strings were any less gorgeous to hear: warm, translucent, inviting. Barenboim’s harmonic understanding underlay and underwrote it all. The Minuet had a fine swagger to it, an equally fine developmental edge too. This was a dance that recalled or looked forward to the ballroom, but was certainly not to be confined to it. Its trio, often underestimated, was afforded due weight (not heaviness!), thereby singing, seducing, and effecting a Don Giovanni-like response in the reprise of its elder sibling. Champagne of the finest vintage characterised the finale, corks bursting, wine overflowing. ‘Finch’han del vino!’ Style and symphonic drama emerged as one in a performance whose stature was underlined by Barenboim’s opting to take the second repeat. Why, after all, should anyone wish such music and such music-making to end?

I wonder whether Baborák’s performance in the Third Horn Concerto may have offered the finest horn playing I have heard. I can safely say that I have heard none finer. Flawless of phrasing and of line, despatched with supreme aristocratic elegance, the first movement set expectations impossible high, only for them to be fulfilled. A slightly smaller string section, just as warm and polished as before, and delectable woodwind followed Barenboim’s lead to effect a partnership poised between chamber and orchestral music, or rather navigating between them. What riches of musical thought were revealed anew, not least some of Mozart’s most breathtaking modulations. A splendidly directed cadenza, Baborák’s own, presented us both with a true microcosm of the whole and a witty surprise. Sung with perfect consolation, human in its divinity and vice versa, the slow movement spoke of tragedy too, its turn to the minor all the more affecting for the lack of underlining lesser musicians would have brought to it. The quintessence of a hunting finale ensued, detail and sweep, balance and propulsion all finely weighed and communicated.

Dark, mysterious, soon explosive, the opening tutti of the D minor Piano Concerto again had expectations run unreasonably high, only to meet, even to surpass them. Dialogue between first and second violins, not only its clarity but also its import, left us in no doubt this was to be no run-of-the-mill performance. It set the scene, however, for a movement of great contrasts, responsorial and otherwise. When I had last heard Barenboim play this concerto, his technical control had not always been what it might; here, technique proved the liberation of the imagination, as Peter Pears once put it (at least according to a quotation on my A-level music teacher’s wall). The sweetness of tragedy, that ineffably Mozartian smiling through tears, was my abiding memory of a first movement as terrifying as anything in Don Giovanni, anger repressed as crucial as anger unleashed. It was, however, a more intimate performance than I expected, once again showing that, at his best, Barenboim is never a musician to rest on his laurels. That said, the lead up to the cadenza and the voice of Beethoven himself was seamless. And if that were not the Angel of Death hovering in the penumbra of the coda, I cannot imagine what it was.

Piano legato flowed like oil in the slow movement, as Mozart famously prescribed. It was in the half-lights and shadows, however, that the truest revelations – in every sense – lay. It was played with all the ease of a young man and all the wisdom accumulated since. The grief of which the central minor mode section spoke was harnessed thereafter to something seraphic, which managed to sing through the memory, through the trauma. Barenboim’s opening finale solo leapt off the page onstage, inciting a demonic rage from the orchestra that surely would have thrilled Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner too. The dramma giocoso balance to this movement, however, was Mozart’s and Mozart’s alone. Our destination, D major, proved balm for the soul and all the more painful for it. Whatever the horrors of our world, Mozart remains.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment