A fine Mozart performance from Igor Levit and the Vienna Philharmonic

AustriaAustria Mozartwoche Salzburg [2] – Mozart and Schubert: Igor Levit (piano), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Joana Mallwitz (conductor). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 27.1.2024. (MB)

Joana Mallwitz (conductor) and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra © Wolfgang Lienbacher

Mozart Le nozze di Figaro KV 492, Overture; Piano Concerto No.9 in E-flat major, KV 271
Schubert – Symphony No.9 in C major, ‘Great’, D 944

Joana Mallwitz’s account of the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro revealed the Vienna Philharmonic as of old. (Conductors foolish enough to try to change its sound will quickly be rebuffed. If you do not like it, work with another orchestra.) Warm sound, fine turning of phrases, and a swift tempo that yet permitted time for the music to breathe offered a proper curtain-raiser. Indeed – a good sign, this – when the overture had come to an end, I expected and wanted the opera to continue.

Alas not on this occasion, but instead we were treated to a performance of ‘one of the greatest wonders of the world’ (Alfred Brendel): the E-flat Piano Concerto, KV 271, with Igor Levit as soloist. This was the only work on the programme for which Mallwitz used a score, though her head was certainly not in it. It was interesting to note the change in her – and the VPO’s – approach: although using the same body of strings, there was even in the opening tutti more of a sense of chamber music writ large than in the overture, whilst retaining warmth and variegation. That impression was confirmed upon Levit’s entry, when he took the existing musical line and ran with it, until handing it back or sharing, in what was very much a shared endeavour. Replete with imaginative touches that never went against the grain, this was a first movement full of life. With Levit’s pearly tone and the heavenly sound of Vienna strings and woodwind, it is difficult to imagine anyone feeling shortchanged, though just occasionally I wondered whether something deeper was missing.

The answer came in the slow movement: not that something had been missing, but rather that something had been kept in reserve. Its dark C minor opening, direct from the world of opera seria, prepared the way for a profound experience in which a finely spun Mozart line, wherever it might lie, was revealed to be possessed of infinite sentiment. It was not precious, but rather seemed to speak of something, to borrow from Mendelssohn, too precise for words: a grief-stricken lament from the deepest of all composers, or so it seemed here. Its radical interiority could be heard particularly in Levit’s solo passages, even in the voicing of a trill. After that, a finale both lighter and faster than one usually hears again had Mendelssohn’s presence hover before us. The orchestra responded to Levit’s opening challenge in helter-skelter fashion as if a nightmare had ended, and we were back to the day, albeit a day that could not quite banish memory of what had preceded it. The subdominant minuet emerged pristine in surprising simplicity: again at a fastish tempo, but in proportion to the music surrounding it. A surprising – and surprisingly apt – solo encore came in the quizzical guise of Shostakovich’s ‘Waltz-Scherzo’ from the Ballet Suite No.1.

Igor Levit © Wolfgang Lienbacher

The second half was given over to Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony. Here there was much to admire – how could there not be with the Vienna Philharmonic onstage? – even if the whole felt lacking in the import and inevitability of the finest performances. Mallwitz presents the work, especially its first two movements, more as companion pieces to the early symphonies than harbingers of Romanticism. There is no Schubert performing tradition here, of course, so one is at liberty to do what one wants so long as it works; but does it? The first movement proceeded fluently without much in the way of tempo modifications (save for actual transition of tempo). Voicing of inner parts was a particular strength. The coda, however, felt less like a culmination and more a signoff.

If the second movement were also on the fast side, it was proportionally so. Such tempo relationships are crucial; Mallwitz has clearly given them due thought. Detail was present and correct. Alternation of string and wind choirs made its point, without veering too strongly towards Bruckner. There was drama too in climax, silence, and aftershock, difficult not to think of in quasi-military terms, given the unfailing march-like quality to the VPO’s build-up. The Scherzo I found engrossing; it offered weight and movement without galumphing, charm as well as style. Its trio proceeded a little too much bar-to-bar, its regularity too obvious. When it came to the Finale, it certainly sounded like one — and a finale to what had gone before too. It was very well put together, with clear understanding and communication of harmonic rhythm, indeed rhythm more generally. I could not help but ask, though: what, if anything, might it all mean? Not that such ‘meaning’ could or should be put into words, but even so.

Mark Berry

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