The Sydney Symphony Orchestra opened its 2018 season with three interconnected programs, presenting a cross-section of the mature orchestral compositions of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s last seven years. All three programs followed the same structure, albeit with different works on each night. Piano concertos received a particular emphasis in this series, with two of them being performed every night by the veteran American pianist Emanuel Ax. These works were bookended by the overtures of the three so-called Da Ponte operas at the beginning and the last three symphonies at the end. The ingenious planning of this trifecta of Mozart music, though admirable, would have been more effective had the three symphonies been performed in their chronological order: thus Program One (emphasising the relatively rare minor keys) following Program Two. After all, Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s advocacy for the idea of a unity (amounting to a giant symphonic cycle) between the three symphonies, which were composed at an incredible speed over two months in 1788, is persuasive. Only the first of these, the Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K 543, starts with an overture-like slow introduction; and only the last, Symphony No. 41 in C major, K 551 (Jupiter), has a powerful, winner-takes-it-all finale.
The overtures to Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and The Marriage of Figaro – short but impressive concert openers – demonstrated great dynamic contrasts and musical energy. These three operas share the buoyancy and humour of brilliant texts – by no means common features in eighteenth-century opera – written by Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte.
It was a rare and delightful experience to enjoy a kaleidoscope of not one but six Mozart piano concertos, performed by an artist of Emanuel Ax’s stature. He may no longer be sprightly as he enters the stage, but his pianism has lost none of its agility. His memory remains as rock-solid as his technique. Ax’s attention to the smallest musical details made his phrasing invariably convincing: for example, at the opening of the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major, K 595, an unusual case among Mozart concerto movements with the soloist playing the theme first, rather than reacting to the orchestra’s introduction of it. Ax is a consummate chamber musician. Toward the end of the same movement, in that stunning moment when the melody is played together by the solo flute, the concert master, and the piano, his attention to his colleagues’ phrasing was palpable. Even the fastest passages emerged with a self-evident elegance that was captivating. Every note, phrase or melody was perfectly formed, although this effect occasionally diminished the dramatic effect of the music. There are plenty of occasions in Mozart’s oeuvre for dark sentiments, anguish, even desperation. In the fast movements of the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K 466, I would have liked more of those sombre feelings to come to the fore. Similarly, some of the cadenzas (the solo sections towards the end of most first movements of concertos which showcase the virtuosic powers of the soloist) flowed so smoothly that the impression of muscle-flexing, heroic and ultimately triumphant battle, which audiences love and is arguably one of the main purposes of a cadenza, did not always eventuate.
The balance between soloist and orchestra was expertly guided by David Robertson, the SSO’s chief conductor (who will lead a new production of Così at the Metropolitan Opera in April). Only occasionally – for instance, in the first movement of the Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K 453 – did the soloist’s feather-light accompanying figures become hard to hear, due to the number of players around him.
The SSO musicians played with exemplary attention to one another, their conductor, and their soloist. Their contribution to the concertos and their performance of the symphonies was confident and supremely executed. However, the numbers were against them. The decision to present Mozart symphonies with the sonority of almost fifty string players (plus the requisite wind, brass forces, and timpani) produced an orchestral sound and playing style which, though beautiful and impressive, was favoured by the likes of Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm quite some time ago. The sound-world of the Classical Era we take for granted nowadays has changed enormously since then, even for performers using ‘modern’ instruments. The musical forces at Mozart’s disposal and the well-documented playing style of the late eighteenth century need not be replicated by every orchestra that performs this magnificent music; however, there is plenty of useful information about them that can inform modern performances.
The three symphonies were thus characterised by a robust symphonic sound, polished and well balanced. The witty side of Mozart’s musical language was less evident, while at the other end of the emotional spectrum, the dark, disturbing undertones of the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K 550 were often smoothed out by gentle articulation.
It all ended in triumph, though, with Robertson and the SSO in fine form for the delightful sound-orgy of the polyphonic Finale of the Jupiter symphony.
Dramatic Mozart was performed in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House on 1–3 February 2018 (performance attended: 2 February); Seductive Mozart was on 5 and 7 February (performance attended: 5 February); and Magnificent Mozart on 9 and 10 February (performance attended: 9 February).
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and The ABR Patrons.