Mary Woodward at the Festivals

Edinburgh international Festival, Mozart Chamber Works, Queens Hall, Review:

***** (5 stars)

“Joy on Stage”

Such JOY!  Joy on stage, clearly visible on the musicians’ faces; and palpable joy in the audience, too, both during and after the performance.

Mozart wrote his clarinet quintet K581 in 1789 when the instrument was pretty new on the orchestral scene, and it’s easy to hear that the composer adored it for its extensive and impressive range, the variety of tone between its registers, and its extraordinarily expressive qualities.  The quintet was written to showcase the talent of Mozart’s friend and  fellow-Freemason, Anton Stadler, about whose playing the composer wrote Never should I have thought that a clarinet could be capable of imitating a human voice so deceptively: indeed your instrument has so soft and lovely a tone that nobody who has a heart can resist it.

Ricardo Morales may have been playing a more modern instrument, but his playing was of equal beauty and emotional depth – and his breath control was little short of phenomenal as he produced seemingly unending, voluptuous streams of liquid gold in the slower sections and seemingly limitless bubblings-up of dark velvet chocolate and sparkling champagne in the lively movements.

The quartet of string players – David Kim, Juliette Kang, Choong-Jin Chang and Hai-Ye Ni – were perfect partners in virtuosity: all five musicians were obviously having a ball as they tossed each other snatches of melody, took their moments to shine in glory, and blended seamlessly in companionship with whoever had the limelight.

I’ve loved this piece for many years, but rarely get to hear it played live.  This morning’s performance was transcendently beautiful and brought tears to my eyes – tears of utter and complete joy.   I was not alone in this, as the warm and generous applause at the end clearly demonstrated.

I’d never heard the second piece in the programme – Mozart’s piano concerto in A major, K414.  Mozart wrote the original version for piano and orchestra, aiming to showcase his own phenomenal talent as a keyboard performer.  Realising the commercial sense of producing a smaller-scale version for use ‘at home’, he also offered a version with the accompaniment arranged for string quartet.  This was the version we heard today, with Harold Robinson’s double bass doubling the cello line and adding a depth that balanced the weight of sound produced by the modern grand piano.

I found myself musing on the contrast between the intimacy of the clarinet quintet, written for a chamber ensemble, and the more outspoken bravura of the one originally intended for larger-scale performance.  In the former, the clarinet stood out at times but at others was a more muted, integral part of the music.  [When completely silent, it was a joy to watch Ricardo Morales’ face as he revelled in  his fellow-musicians’ music-making.]  In the concerto, however, there was no doubt who was the dominant partner in the ensemble.  The strings made wonderful music, but when the piano entered they fell silent: their job was to prompt the soloist into action, then stand back to let him shine, or provide a subtle, subdued accompaniment over which he rode triumphant.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, former Artistic Director of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and now Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, New York, gave us the opportunity to relish another of his many talents: that of virtuoso pianist: and boy, was he good!   He played Mozart’s original cadenzas, themselves a stunning illustration of the composer’s talent.

The concerto is, perhaps, less deeply moving than some of his later ones – but as the composer himself wrote in a letter to his father, Leopold : these concertos are a happy medium between too heavy and too light.  They are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being insipid.  There are parts here and there from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction, but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be please, albeit without knowing why.

I would definitely place myself among the less learned, and indeed I can’t explain exactly why the concerto was so pleasing – but it most definitely was.   The rest of the audience may have been more discerning: regardless of their intellectual status, they were obviously well pleased – as were the musicians who gave us such an incomparable treat this morning. 

Edinburgh international Festival, Mozart Chamber Works, Queens Hall – Run Ended.

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