Assembly Hall, Sunday October 1 (2.45pm), with Idil Biret (Turkey, piano), conductor John Gibbons.
Rossini, The Silken Ladder overture; Mozart, Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor K491 and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; Mendelssohn, Symphony No 4 ‘Italian’.
The WSO and Mendelssohn ensured summer was clung onto indoors with liberated Italian spirit, amid October’s dripping entrance outside. John Gibbons’ seasons of music are perpetually devised to ensure hearts are uplifted, life is affirmed, and the feel-good factor at WSO concerts gets its fuelling oxygen.
‘Signor Crescendo’ of Pesaro – Gioachino Rossini - lifted the curtain. Or rather his opera character Giuliana lowered her Silken Ladder (from her bedroom window to her man, Dorvil). That overture also lifted the lid and Mendelssohn-the-German’s audio slideshow of his Italian holidays clinched the entertainment as the afternoon’s other bookend.
The WSO sparkled and bubbled like piazza wine in the flute and cheese on the topping. Once more this orchestra and conductor were delivering. Laughter, mischief, Latin passion and fun spilled out in their making of this music. Their audiences smile. Gibbons makes them, also, with his spoken audience repartee, his tip-giving and illuminations of the music to come, sometimes black-peppered and parmesan-sprinkled with his own salty political observations.
Perhaps one other man set the stage for all this enjoyment: Mozart – and if he’s not your favourite Viennese Whirl, look away now. His operatic and instrumental music seeded and inspired this romping, cavorting and sunshine-seeking from Rossini and Mendelssohn. And this WSO season brings some of the sumptuous and searching very best of Mozart you can order from a non-opera house menu.
I mean the summit of his instrumental achievement, his path-laying Piano Concertos. Gibbons this season has picked arguably the best pairing of all: today No 24, on January 7 it’s No 22. Both are in related flat keys (C minor and Eb), which in Mozart spells unequalled depth and breadth of his Concerto content and sound, served to the listener in ladles.
Today, in No 24 K491, the WSO were playing less frequently performed concert-hall music which is unadulterated heaven for lovers of woodwind. The WSO had all their principal wind players on board, plus their chief-horn-in-waiting, Richard Steggles. Mozart wrote concertos and big chamber pieces for all these instruments – flute, oboe, bassoon and horn, plus his then new trump card, the soothing and satinising clarinet. In Mozart, this full flush of nine instruments (pairs of all except flute) appears only in this of his Piano Concertos.
Consequently none of his others match this richness of sound, although the fabulous No 22 to come, lacks the tang of oboes and in consequence is almost hedonistically sumptuous.
Having risen early to rehearse, fired by the day’s prospect, and maybe eaten double scrambled eggs on toast for the purpose, the WSO wind and horns all played superbly the entire afternoon. But after this C minor Concerto, you could not deny bassoonist Gavin McNaughton the king’s crown. Had Rameau, the liberator of the orchestral bassoon, been listening, he’d have taken Gavin for a slap-up dinner.
What of the piano soloist in this astonishingly different Concert No 24, with its grave and querulous beauty and its compositional daring – about which, upon hearing, Beethoven declared himself powerless to equal? Idil Biret, an outstanding pupil of legendary soloists Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, gave us a cultural lesson in 1950s-70s interpretation which foreran later reactionary trends in flexibility and exploration.
Gibbons, brilliantly in preparation, reminded us that 18th century composers, with railway and rocket science as yet undreamed of, understood ultimate speed to be that of a galloping horse. Why, of course, I thought! While Mozart would chase young sopranos around moonlit gardens fast enough on foot, he’d call on a horse to speed him away from pursuing creditors. So here the Concerto was played at a slower kind of allegro than our modern ears expect.
Biret and Gibbons have already recorded some of these Concertos with The London Mozart Players. Today, Biret’s deliberation and resoluteness in the slightly stout and robust restraint of this post-war school of playing again revealed its own insights.
After in their introduction the strings, wind, horns and ominous trumpets and drums had stared into the dark and sweep of the oncoming storm, she settled into the often sublime passagework of the first movement. Throughout, her distinct right hand made the tunes carry far in their genius simplicity, and there was no over-elaboration or indulgence in the voluntary decoration Mozart invites from the pianist. The dynamic stretch between loud and soft lacked any of the modern extravagance. The middle movement was not indulgently slow. The strength of her interpretation came from implying no fragility or frailty in the music, nor sentimentality. Yet it never felt shackled.
It’s a work of austere beauty, in the C minor key saved for Mozart’s deepest ruminations and most disturbed imaginings, used for a Mass he never completed and producing a compositional result even more unsettling and unconventional than he does in D minor with his Requiem, Fantasy for Piano or Piano Concerto No 20. Biret is a legend herself and her ingrained dignity and iron control gave us a different window and angle on how that disconcerting mystery can be put across.
Her artistic choice of first movement cadenza was Hummel’s, which handsomely took a stage further Mozart’s already fearless counterpoint and contrapuntism.
This truly great concerto is music of a kind Mozart wrote only once and has always been chosen for concert performance highly selectively. Therefore for Mozart’s fans, Gibbons made this their lucky day. At the opposite end of popularity and frequency is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Here Gibbons and the WSO strings conveyed the masterly lightness of ‘A Little Night Music’ without failing to hint at The Basic Mozart Fact that his oneness with operatic feeling, character and incident infuses almost everything he composed. The guy lived for composing about people and situations.
The WSO made me conjecture that each theme of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik could be an operatic character or scene described by instruments instead of singers. We have a pretty obvious dashing hero in the first movement. He’s making his impact on a social event, showing his humanity, stirring up then defusing reactions around him, displaying his charm. In the second movement we may have a mature but still alluring woman, offering worldly wisdom to a yearning, more impulsive young female relative.
Gibbons gave the Minuet its courtliness with slight first-foot-forward hesitations at each major change of step. And the Trio revealed that a seductive siren was present. Then the racy finale could have been the whole party gathering setting out on a giggling game of hide-and -seek-and-tickle. Once again, music Mozart wrote for background consumption helplessly possessed so much vitality it simply leapt off the wallpaper. Gibbons’ mission was surely to remind us of that.
WSO ‘Latin Fire’ Concert on Sunday November 5 (2.45): Rodrigo’s Guitar Concert, played by Classic FM favourite Craig Ogden; The Ritual Fire dance by de Falla, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee; Tchaikovsky’s ‘Little Russian’ – his Second Symphony, with Ukrainian themes. Bookings on 01903 206206.