Julia Fischer plays Mozart with the LPO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Richard Strauss: Julia Fischer (violin), Nils Mönkemeyer (viola), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 4.2.2022. (CS)

Julia Fischer (c) Marquee TV

Mozart – Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Overture; Violin Concerto No.5 in A major K.219; Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major K.364

R. Strauss – Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche

Clutching the score of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, Richard Strauss is reported to have said farewell to this earth with the rueful reflection, “I would give anything just to have written this”.  He deeply admired the Classical composer whose “melody hovers between heaven and earth, between mortal and immortal, the deepest penetration of artistic imagination into ultimate secrets”, and strove to emulate Mozart’s Apollonian clarity, melodic charm and emotional profundity.  So, Strauss is a natural partner for Julia Fischer’s presentation of Mozart’s Violin Concertos with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and in this second concert of her four-part Spring Residency with the orchestra, Till Eulenspiegel followed Fischer’s performance of the last of Mozart’s five concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante, in which she was partnered by the German viola player, Nils Mönkemeyer.

After a relaxed, but not particularly characterful orchestral opening, Fischer’s first statements in the Allegro aperto were distinctly muscular and well-defined, her bowing action strong and lithe, the phrases finely chiselled and well-considered, sitting naturally within the orchestral dialogues.  Her tone is sweet and silky, especially at the top, and she projected her sound assertively.  This boldness of manner contrasted with the more tentative handling of the orchestral episodes by the Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård, who kept things moving along neatly but with, I felt, little sense of spontaneity.

And, the sense of ‘stature’ with which Fischer imbued the music was evident, too, in the cadenzas – her own, I presume, the programme book did not say – which explored a rich canvas of timbres and colours, and were magisterially delivered.  I found the opening movement to be lacking certain ‘sunniness’ of disposition, though, and the Adagio too had Romantic weight and sonority.  That’s not to say that the purity of line in those extended, singing phrases was not beautiful and serene – just that the melody seems to me, at times, to be lifted by a lighter wit.  I missed some of the youthful innocence of this music, which Mozart wrote when he was still a teenager: there’s a playfulness about the final Rondeau but Fischer posed the questions for the orchestra to answer with an air of command rather than invitation, hauteur rather than good humour.  However, the articulation in the Turkish episodes was razor-sharp, the bite of the bow incisive, the temper fierce.  Fischer knew what she wanted to say, and she said it imperiously.

The LPO played with more vigour and character at the start of the Sinfonia Concertante, the accents dynamic but warm, the syncopations taut, the scotch-snaps sprightly.  I was surprised, though, that Fischer and Mönkemeyer played with the tutti at the start, and later in this movement, and also in the final Presto.  Not that that’s an unidiomatic choice in terms of period practice, but in the opening Allegro maestoso the entry of the unison solo violin and viola, with an upwards sweeping octave to a sustained high Eb and subsequent unfolding, falling ‘curl’, is such a striking gesture that it seemed a pity to diminish its rhetorical effect.

Moreover, there was so much swaying and leaning from the two soloists, as they communicated with their respective ‘sections’, that they seemed to take command of the tutti episodes too, again weakening the frisson of the dialogue between soloists and orchestra.  Both Fischer and Mönkemeyer are very ‘physical’ players, conveying much with their movements, gestures and facial expressions, and the visual effect here was rather ‘effortful’ – sometimes the soloists’ exchanges seemed more a ‘challenge’ than a conversation.  Nevertheless, this was expansive, gloriously lyrical playing, and I liked the way, in the viola’s excursions into the minor, Mönkemeyer phrased with a confident, elegant freedom.  The two solo instruments were perfectly aligned in the first movement cadenza, chasing each other brazenly up those buoyant arpeggios then slithering back down in co-ordinated harmony.

The Andante had a dark quality that brought a sense of heightened drama to the deeply expressive lyricism, and Søndergård paced and structured this movement very persuasively.  The cadenza was a ‘courtship’ – it put me in mind of a Renaissance poem, the sonnets of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, perhaps.  Truly lovely playing.  “Anything you can do, I can do better,” might have been the motto of the Presto, but occasionally I wished for a lighter flirtatiousness.  And, again, the soloists joined the tutti at the opening, meaning that the impact of their entry with different thematic material was weakened.  Fischer and Mönkemeyer were clearly enjoying themselves though, and they gave the full house at the Festival Hall a real treat.

The concert had opened with the overture from Mozart’s singspiel, Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  If I’m honest this performance did not make much of an impression.  Søndergård seemed to take a non-interventionist approach, and the LPO strings did not seem natural Mozartians. There was brightness and dynamic contrast that brought colour and thrust to the start, but with the recapitulation, after the slightly murky harmonies and timbres of the central section, some of that vividness seemed to have faded.  Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche was a different matter altogether.  The teasing coyness of the strings’ salutation and the horn’s swaggering character stamp – fearlessly, brilliantly played by Nicholas Mooney – established a mood of arrogant glee which never tipped into anarchy, Søndergård keeping the textures transparent and the gestures light-footed as the eponymous prankster wreaked havoc in marketplaces and maiden’s hearts.  There was a lovely jauntiness – some super playing from clarinettist Benjamin Mellefont – that just about avoided rude insolence.  Instrumental sections relished their roles in the drama: the violas, swapping places with the second fiddles who had been antiphonally placed in the Mozart works, were richly righteous Teutonic clergy, while the trombones were no-nonsense executioners.  Some may like a bit more like their Till to have a bit more wild abandon, but Søndergård brought a touch of Mozartian clarity that seemed just right on this occasion.

Claire Seymour

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