Mixed-and-matched Mozart in a blast from the concert past
Freiburger Barockorchester pay no heed to modern approaches to concert structures
“It was through George Bernard Shaw I discovered that the shape of 19th century concerts was radically different to what we are used to today”
I don’t know when I first became interested in how concerts have changed over the years. It could have been from my teenage reading of the musical criticism of George Bernard Shaw. Through Shaw I discovered that the shape of 19th-century concerts was radically different to what we are used to today.
Or it could have been from looking into the background of Fritz Kreisler’s encore pieces. Kreisler not only wrote short violin and piano pieces under his own name, but also made a series of arrangements of pieces by earlier composers, most of which, he eventually confessed, were also entirely his own work. Delving into the Kreisler issue taught me that violin and piano recitals were once a lot lighter than they are today.
One way or another, I was young when I became interested in the changing face of concerts. This ranged from how pianists turned the angle of their instrument on stage through 90 degrees to how the presentation of support acts with major stars faded from the scene (though it’s still with us when the likes of Domingo or Carreras perform in arena-style events). It also included how audiences stopped talking during the music at the opera and gave up clapping between the movements of symphonies, concertos and sonatas.
Concerts have become more serious and more codified. Symphony orchestras place overtures at the start, concertos before the interval and big symphonies at the end. Recitalists show an overwhelming preference for presenting their repertoire in chronological order: Bach before Beethoven, Beethoven before Brahms, Brahms before Bartók.
And there’s no denying that there is even a kind of snobbery at work. The RTÉ National Symphony, for example, has shunted certain pieces out of its main subscription series and into its much more informal summer lunchtime concerts. I am thinking of the kind of music favoured by radio programmes such as Des Keogh’s Music for Middlebrows or the BBC’s Your Hundred Best Tunes. It’s an odd business that some of the most delectable and popular pieces should be intentionally sidelined from an orchestra’s most prestigious concerts.
There are welcome exceptions to the pattern, of course. Last month’s Stravinsky in Focus concerts mixed orchestral and chamber music to great effect. The programming of new music groups can be every bit as varied as in the old days. And the chamber music festivals in Bantry and Sligo and the New Ross Piano Festival all make a point of mixing artists and repertoire in interesting ways.
Two of the world’s great orchestras – the Vienna Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic – were heard for the first time in 1842. Both inaugural programmes started with symphonies, included a range of opera arias and overtures, and ended with an overture. The New York programme also included a piano quintet by Hummel. It is not the kind of thing you will readily encounter from a symphony orchestra today.
So you can imagine my sense of anticipation when one of Europe’s leading period -instrument groups, the Freiburger Barockorchester, advertised an all-Mozart evening arranged on lines more of the 18th than the 21st century. For last week’s concert at the NCH, they opened with the Linz Symphony, spreadeagled through the insertion of opera arias between its movements. After the interval the Clarinet Concerto was followed by some more arias and a group of dances.
Maybe my sense of anticipation was too high, but something failed to gel. I just wasn’t persuaded by the interweaving of arias and symphony. And baritone Christian Gerhaher’s interesting choice of arias – he opted for ones that are rarely chosen for stand-alone concert performance – did not work for me either.
The orchestral playing, directed from the violin by Gottfried von der Goltz, was crisp and efficient, the tonal colouring of the period instruments was a pleasure in itself, and Gerhaher worked hard to enliven his singing with sharp dramatic emphasis. However, the extra element that I had been hoping for did not materialise.
Things changed after the interval, with the arrival of the charismatic clarinettist Lorenzo Coppola. With Coppola there was never a dull moment, whether in his spoken introduction to the late Clarinet Concerto, his sometimes fancifully freewheeling playing or in the gorgeous, muted ochre of his clarinette d’amour (a recreation of a soft-toned 18th-century instrument with an extended range).
Gerhaher also hit his peak in the second half, when he toned down the drama and revealed more fully the beauty of line for which he is celebrated. At the end, though, this remained an evening that was less than the sum of its parts.
Saturday brought the Academos Irish World Academy Strings to Dublin for a short, afternoon concert in the NCH’s John Field Room. I first encountered Academos as the graduate orchestra of the MA classical string performance programme of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick. On Saturday Academy players accounted for less than a third of the line-up, the rest being accounted for by third-level students from Dublin and Cork, and tutors from the Irish Chamber Orchestra, with Katherine Hunka directing from the violin.
The playing of the teenage Mendelssohn’s Symphony Movement in C minor and Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro was upfront and eager, although the group was too small to make really meaningful contrasts between the solo quartet and the full body of strings in the Elgar.
Sam Perkins’s 1916 centenary work, Pause, was heard for the first time in Cork last month. It is for strings, electronics, voice (one of the players) and audience (nothing to learn: it is a hum-along). It seeks and successfully makes a plaintive point.