Saturday, 21 January 2017

An Evening With The Master

While there are many composers who are rated by this or that music lover as the # 1 of all time, I make no such claim for any one musical genius.  To me, there are a dozen or so in the very top rank -- and I also know that not everyone would agree with my choices for the top dozen.

This review covers the last concert of an annual mini-festival of the music of Mozart which has been a feature of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's calendar now for over a decade.  

Why Mozart?  I suppose there are many reasons.  There's certainly a huge choice of musical works from that one man's pen.  His music is unfailingly skillful, beautiful, and intriguing in some degree at least to listeners -- and even more so to musicians.  There have been interesting theories from some academics about the ability of Mozart's music to stimulate brain development in children.  There have been even more interesting theories about the causes of Mozart's untimely death. 

For this concert, the orchestra was led by conductor Bernard Labadie.  The programme spanned much of Mozart's creative life from the overture of one of his precocious early operas to one of his later symphonies.  In between were framed two of his five delightful violin concertos.  The concert was given at Koerner Hall, and it's hard to think of a more appropriate venue in Toronto for listening to this music.  The hall has a near-perfect combination of warm sound with utter clarity of detail.

The concert opened with the Overture to "Lucio Silla".  It's an early work, written on commission when Mozart was all of sixteen years old.  The opera was staged here last spring by Opera Atelier (read about it here: Melodrama to the Max).  Once again, then, I've had the chance to hear a truly rare piece of music performed live twice in less than a twelvemonth.  The music is both charming and energetic, with trumpets and drums adding a festive rather than a martial air.  It's in three distinct movements, each one ending with a full close, as was common in the overtures and symphonies alike of that time.  Indeed, there's nothing in the music either to indicate any connection to the story to come in the opera, or to distinguish it from any of the early symphonies which Mozart was writing at about the same time.  Labadie and the orchestra played it with crisp precision and a notable spring in the step during the faster first and last movements.

Violinist Isabelle Faust made her TSO debut next in the Concertos # 3 and # 1, in that order, with the intermission in between.  Both were written in his teenage years.  We know from documents that Mozart valued above all a "beautiful, pure tone" when playing the violin.  The best violinists take that advice thoroughly to heart, and Faust was no exception.  Her playing in the pastoral, gentle first two movements of # 3 was notable for the fine legato, the singing tone, and a definitely classical poise in the faster passages.  In the faster jig of the finale she took on a more playful style.

In the earlier # 1, Faust adopted a more extrovert mode which suited the acrobatics of this showier score.  By the way, "showier" is a relative term; we're not looking at late-Romantic flash and dash here!  The general air of this concerto is lighter, more galant in style, and Faust captured that feeling nicely even as she launched with gusto into the rapid passagework.

Throughout both concerti, the orchestra partnered the soloist with equal poise and grace.  Highlights included such moments as the quiet muted strings in the slow movement of # 3, or the quaint little final "curtsey" (as programme annotator Kevin Bazzana aptly called it) of the oboes and horns at the very end of the work.

The concert concluded on a much more dramatic level, with the Symphony No. 38 in D, K.504 "Prague".  This was written just ten years after the third violin concerto, but what a difference!  At one leap we were taken from the glittering salons of Salzburg to the dark and dangerous world of Don Giovanni -- and indeed, the intensely gripping slow introduction with its startling chromatic eruptions always seems to me to foreshadow the thunderous statue music from that opera.

I got the impression that Labadie was also thinking along the same lines, for here he really allowed the brass and drums more leeway to let it rip.  The sound didn't become unbalanced, but suddenly the orchestra sounded much larger.  Well, that too is appropriate as this work was written for public performance in a larger hall, not for a salon.

At any rate, the crisp articulation which we'd heard all evening again dominated the writing in the first and second movements.  The clarity of sound, and perfect balance, was especially notable in the fugal episode in the first movement development.  At the same time, the sound picture developed a weight and power that definitely pointed the way towards Beethoven.  After a performance like this, the Eroica seems less like a revolutionary and more of an evolutionary work.

Alas, the final movement brought the one serious letdown of the concert.  The hectic tempo adopted by Labadie kept the orchestra scrambling to catch up, and that was my overall impression right down until the last 3 or 4 pages.  There were passages, notably the recurrences of the opening theme, in which the orchestra were definitely having trouble getting their rhythm together -- the legato syncopations are no help here, to be sure.  Still, I couldn't escape the impression that a slight reduction of 2 or 3 percent in tempo would have allowed this final movement to cohere as splendidly as all the other music of the evening.