Ivor Bolton seems to miss the smile in Mozart’s music

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival [1] – Mozart: Alexander Melnikov (piano), Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, Ivor Bolton (conductor). Grosser Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg, 21.8.2022. (MB)

Alexander Melnikov (piano), Ivor Bolton (conductor), Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg © SF/Marco Borrelli

Mozart – Symphony No.31 in D major KV 297/300a, ‘Paris’; Piano Concerto No.17 in G major KV 453; Serenade for orchestra No.9 in D major KV 320, ‘Posthorn’

‘Mozart, more intimate [than Beethoven], more touching, between the melancholy of the past and the serene expectation of the future, Mozart, who is neither a child, nor an androgyne nor an angel, but a little of all these, Mozart, always loving, always confident, Mozart smiled, even before death…’ It is difficult to take issue with many, if any, of these claims, save perhaps for the particular comparison with Beethoven, from the fourth volume of Messiaen’s Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie. Messiaen’s insistence that Mozart smiled was repeated in his final commissioned work, Un sourire, written in 1989 for the 1991 bicentenary. If I were to offer a single criticism of the Mozart revealed, or obscured, by Ivor Bolton in this Mozart Matinée, it was that the music all too rarely smiled.

In the Paris Symphony, indeed, the decidedly un-Mozartian quality of the grimace was more to the fore. The Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra offered a welcome, full sound, enhanced by the size of the hall, only slightly marred in the ‘Parisian’ opening by the incongruous sound of rasping ‘period’ brass with a ‘modern’ orchestra, albeit one with regrettably little in the way of string vibrato. Bolton’s tempo, however, was well chosen, probably somewhat on the slow side for today’s fashions—allegedly ‘period’, yet rarely anything of the sort. A hallmark of this performance was the elemental sense imparted by certain basic musical figures. Not always did they fully develop into larger lines beyond that, though, having excellent playing (whether to one’s taste or no) give the impression of dragging rather than fizzing. The slow movement—the 3/4 Andante rather than the 6/8 Andantino—was not entirely without such doggedness but flowed better. I was left regretting its brevity, but then why say more than need be said? Bolton seems not to have mastered the (admittedly difficult) trick of playing as fast as the closing Allegro demands without sounding hard-driven. It was here, above all, that I regretted the lack of a smile, the presence of all too many grimaces. Counterpoint, however, was clear, adding a welcome ‘learned’ depth.

That inability to sustain a long Mozart line, or maybe unwillingness (could it be that he actually does not want to?) was again apparent in the opening of the G major Piano Concerto, KV 453. Lovely woodwind playing could not entirely disguise the lack of vibrato from violins in particular. More, though, than in the symphony, Bolton carried the music forward, although only after pianist Alexander Melnikov’s entry was it clear how this might be done more readily. Strange ritardandi were Bolton’s doing; Melnikov could generally be relied upon to put them right, though he was not without a certain brusqueness either. The cadenza, Mozart’s own (as in the second movement) melted beautifully where called for; a little more of that earlier on would surely have been preferable. Messiaen, at least, would have thought so. The opening phrasing of the Andante was much better. Melnikov’s fashionable decision to play piano continuo before his first solo entry struck me as unnecessary, but it did no great harm. The sense of hushed mystery he brought to the minor mode was beautiful indeed; for that, one could have forgiven much. It was the finale, though, that fell most readily into place, its ‘rightness’ of tempo and phrasing leaving space, well taken, for something closer to the magic Mozart requires. Mozart’s changes of tempo were well handled, characterful and consequential; those imposed on final exchanges between piano and orchestral less so, their rhetoric decidedly uncertain, even arbitrary.

The Posthorn Serenade’s first movement offered another grand, if slightly astringent, introduction. Apparent confusion over dynamics at one point aside, the rest was generally well shaped and benefited from a stronger sense of forward momentum than the Paris Symphony had. Bolton’s rhetorical broadening for the onset of the recapitulation worked in context. The second movement was on the swift side, but far from excessively so. I did not care much for the agogic accents employed, but I have heard far worse mannerism. It was otherwise well shaped and projected, though the Trio, taken by solo instruments, relaxed too much to the extent of sounding sluggish. Whether it was strictly necessary for flutes and oboes (not bassoons) to stand for the beginning of the third movement, the practice drew visual attention to aural delights to be savoured from all in the section. Third and fourth movements were beautifully played, at well chosen tempi; there were even a few smiles. The fifth emerged, intelligently and convincingly, as its predecessor’s successor bathed in darker shadows, that characterisation having us value all the more the passages of sunlight. Here was the dramatic highpoint of the morning, seeming already to point toward the world of the Da Ponte operas. A robust opening to the Menuetto was taken with just the right amount of swing. The considerably faster tempo taken for the first Trio sounded unsettled, even bizarre, but moderate slowing for the second worked well, its solo wonderfully played on what looked to me like a genuine posthorn. The finale offered a rousing close, full of incident and variety. It was a pity, I felt, that some of these insights could not have been fed back into the first part of the concert, to show us the truth of Messiaen’s further claim that Mozart’s form ‘is always perfect and constantly renewed’.

Mark Berry

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