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Eine (not so) Kleine Nachmittagmusik

Sydney Opera House
02/12/2005 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No.29, Concerto for Flute and Harp, Symphony No.38 (Prague)
Janet Webb (Flute) & Louise Johnson (Harp)
Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Hubert Soudant (conductor)

For those who may be surprised that a symphony concert was held at an ‘opera house’, it should be explained that the world’s most beautiful opera house is actually a music performance centre. Under its famous ‘white sails’, the Sydney Opera House (SOH) contains a Concert Hall, Opera Theatre, Drama Theatre, Playhouse, Studio, Multipurpose Venue, Exhibition Hall, and Open-air Venue. It was in the Concert Hall, home of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO), that this afternoon concert, titled ‘A Mozart Celebration’, took place.

Afternoon concerts generally attract older audiences than evening concerts because such patrons often find it difficult to travel after dark. The performance on the 12th fell on a Saturday afternoon, so there were also many school-aged children, whose parents probably preferred not to take them out at night or on a weekday afternoon.

Some may feel that it was to this traditionally less adventurous audience that an all-Mozart program was directed, and some middle-aged members of the audience, quaffing their pre-concert champagne on the decks of the Opera House while gazing at the beautiful blue harbour that surrounds it, expressed regret that H.M.A.S. SOH was not about to sail on less chartered waters.

While this reviewer is fully in favour of variety, and of hearing the unfamiliar juxtaposed with the classic, I do welcome, at least occasionally, hearing a symphony of Mozart treated as a concert’s plat principal, rather than as the pre-interval entrée before the ‘major event’ of a Mahler or Buckner symphony. One cannot appreciate the true beauty of a Grecian vase if one always places it in front a Rembrandt and, similarly, Mozart’s grosse Kleinkunst needs its own space in order to speak to us freely.

The program choice may actually have been due to the presence of a guest conductor who is a Mozart specialist. Hubert Soudant has stated that Mozart is the composer closest to his heart, and was, in 1994, unanimously chosen by the musicians of the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra to be their Director, a position he still holds.

The concert opened with the Symphony No.29, composed in Salzburg in 1774. This is widely regarded as Mozart’s earliest, mature symphony. Soudant drew playing of textural transparency from SSO, helped by seating the violins in divisi, but mainly due to his acute sensitivity to Mozart’s inner voices.

Almost every work that Mozart composed, be it a violin sonata or a piano concerto, is in a sense a ‘mini-opera’, and Soudant had the ability to bring the drama of this symphony to life. With the aid of his expressive hands (no baton), and often with some very audible grunts, he uncovered the humour, mystery, tragedy, and the lyricism that is in this work.

The second work, the Concert for Flute and Harp is a product of Mozart’s visit to Paris in 1778. The combination of flute and harp can be delightful, and a good performance of this concertante work can take it beyond its French salon roots to approach (but never reach) the sublimity of the Eflat Sinfonia Concertante.

Unfortunately, neither of the orchestral principals who featured in this work were soloist material. The flautist played all the notes, but not the music they contain. The harpist’s tone often sounded harsh and intrusive. There was little interplay between them. It was the aural equivalent of a pas de deux in which the two dancers remain on different sides of the stage. Even the exuberant Soudant seemed to lose heart and the orchestra accompaniment developed a routine quality.

After interval, having spent the first half listening to a work from Salzburg and then one from Paris, we heard a masterpiece composed in the city where Mozart was most appreciated during his life. In 1787, the population of Prague was crazy about Figaro and Mozart was already at work on Don Giovanni for a premiere in the city. Mozart is reported, by his first biographer, to have counted the day on which this symphony, for ‘connoisseurs and music-lovers’ premiered in the city, as the happiest of his life.

The Prague symphony is sometimes undervalued because it does not belong to the ‘Final Trilogy’ (Nos. 39-41) and because it lacks a minuet. Yet this symphony is the equal of the last three, and Mozart’s three-movement triptych says all that needs to be said. Not surprisingly, this symphony is close to the world of Don Giovanni and also contains some reminiscences of Figaro. There are no direct quotes from these works, only echoes.

Soudant’s understanding of this work was profound, and his control of the players made them an extension of his head, heart, and hands. From the moment we entered the D major mystery of the slow introduction (the hard sticks on the tympani very effective in the dramatic change to the minor), through the blend of sadness and happiness in the andante, to the dazzling finale (the horns pitching perfectly in their stratospheric parts), this was a performance the like of which we seldom hear. The elderly and the young in the audience listened raptly throughout, as if aware that this plat principal would nourish them for a long time.

Mark Selikowitz



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