Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Serse, English National Opera, 15 September 2014


(sung in English as Xerxes)

Serse – Alice Coote
Arsamene – Andrew Watts
Amastre – Catherine Young
Ariodate – Neal Davies
Romilda – Sarah Tynan
Atalanta – Rhian Lois
Elviro – Adrian Powter

Nicholas Hytner (director)
Michael Walling (revival director)
David Fielding (designs)
Paul Pyant, Martin Doone (lighting)
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Dominic Peckham)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Michael Hofstetter (conductor)

It was a delight to welcome Nicholas Hytner’s charming, witty staging of Serse, or Xerxes, intelligently revived by Michael Wallingm back to the Coliseum. Some of ENO’s so-called ‘classic revivals’ have stretched the term beyond breaking-point; this, however, does seem to qualify both as a revival in more than name and, in its own way, as a ‘classic’. Having won an Olivier award on its first outing in the anniversary year of 1985, Hytner’s production lightly frames an opera which, if we are honest, has nothing meaningful to do with ancient Persia, in terms of a re-imagined eighteenth century. Images from something akin to Georgian Vauxhall – topiary, newspapers, aristocratic finery – merge happily and without the slightest pedantry with hints at the Enlightenment archaeological imperialism of the British Museum, ‘anachronisms’ such as deck chairs in the park, the anonymised ritual of white-faced courtiers, the celebrated Handel statue in Westminster Abbey, and so forth, to enable our minds and memories to play upon whatever associations they will, without damage to the slight comedy that is the ‘drama’ of the piece and which is really more of an excuse for a fine succession of Handelian melodies than anything else. (That said, the sense of a different æsthetic, not just that of opera seria, but also of the often-unacknowledged experimentalism of Vauxhall, is present too, perhaps especially in the revival.)

Whilst, even in this, one of the strongest of Handel’s operas, it is difficult and would probably be perverse to care about the characters and their actions in the way one would in the greatest of his dramatic oratorios, let alone in an opera by Monteverdi or Mozart, the cast offered not only a generally strong set of vocal performances but, for the most part, more than plausible acting too. Alice Coote seemed to be an audience favourite but, for me, hers was a strikingly mixed performance: at its best very good, especially rich in the lower range, but too often resorting to downright shouting, and with decidedly mixed results when it came to coloratura. Andrew Watts’s coloratura was often found wanting too; I had the sense that he would have been happier in contemporary than Baroque opera. Otherwise, there was little about which to cavil at all. Sarah Tynan’s Romilda was beautifully sung throughout, with a fine sense indeed of how coloratura can, even in Handel opera, strain towards true dramatic meaning. Rhian Lois captured to a tee the character of her scheming yet ultimately insouciant sister, Atalanta, and was just as impressive in vocal terms. Catherine Young offered relative gravity and, again, equally excellent singing as the disguised heiress, Amastre (Amastris here). Neal Davies and Adrian Powter were more than serviceable in the smaller roles of Ariodate and Elviro. Direction of the chorus was finely judged too.

I feared the worst at the beginning of Michael Hofstetter’s account of the Overture. Vibrato-less strings and a hard-driven tempo had me thinking we should be in for something akin to typical English ‘Baroque’ – actually, nothing of the sort – puritanism.  However, within the bounds of what is (sadly) nowadays possible, Hofstetter’s conducting and the ENO Orchestra’s response showed considerably flexibility and an enlightened approach towards musical expression of which I had more or less given up hope. There was not, of course, the rich tone of the old ‘live’ recording (in German) from Rafael Kubelík, with Fritz Wunderlich no less, but the performance compared well with Charles Mackerras (this production, on DVD). Not only was there genuine ‘life’ to be heard in the pit, it sounded like an orchestra rather than a tired end-of-pier band, such as more recently suffered here from so-called ‘specialists’. This work’s particular fluidity of recitative and aria – perhaps harking back to one of Handel’s sources in Cavalli’s version? – was well served, dramatic impetus not, at least after the Overture, being mistaken for the tyranny of the bandmaster. If there were times when a little more warmth would not have gone amiss from the strings, they were fewer than one might have expected. Continuo playing was alert and, again, far from inflexible. ENO could do far worse than ask Hofstetter back in such repertoire – especially when one considers the alternatives.

There will be a broadcast on BBC Radio 3, on 4 October.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Hodges - Debussy, Birtwistle, and Mozart-Busoni, 14 September 2014

Wigmore Hall

Debussy – Etudes, Book I
Birtwistle – Variations from the Golden Mountains (world premiere)
Mozart-Busoni – Giga, bolero, e variazione
Birtwistle – Gigue Machine
Debussy – Etudes, Book I

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

This was a fascinatingly programmed recital, which proved to be more than the sum of its considerable parts. Debussy’s Etudes bookended two Birtwistle works, both splendidly original and full of ‘traditional’ resonance, with Busoni reimagining Mozart (partly, like Birtwistle, reimagining Bach) at the centre. Nicolas Hodges’s interpretations played to and upon the programming, drawing out – and enabling the listener to draw out – connections, rather than presenting ready-made ‘individual’ performances. And, of course, there was the small matter of a Birtwistle premiere in his eightieth birthday year.

The first six Debussy pieces opened with a stark, elemental ‘pour les “cinq doigts”’, its simplicity almost aggressive. Uncertainty invaded, preparing a typical dialectic between opposing yet related tendencies. There was great clarity to Hodges’s performance; this was forthright, even high modernist, Debussy. ‘Pour les tierces’ put the interval in question in the foreground from the outset, permitting elaboration, variation, something akin to discussion. Harmonies, if some way still from the non-functional, were readily apparent as constructions from intervallic material: an obvious contrast with, say, many of the composer’s Préludes. Such was not, of course, always the case; indeed, contest was in good part the thing. The importance of intervals, at any rate, reminded one that Webern was far from the only begetter of Boulez and the post-war avant garde. And then, the third study seemed to take in more of the world of those far-from-superseded Préludes: Debussy – and a good performer – will always question, even confound. Mediæval resonances of the fourth, organum in particular, made their point without a hint of the archaic. In ‘pour les octaves’, Post-Lisztian pyrotechnics combined with modernistic insistence, even at times, glare, seemingly born of the first study, whilst ‘pour les huit doigts’ seemed to take its leave from that first piece’s dexterous explorations: post-Czerny, as it were, though with Liszt not so far away either.

Birtwistle’s Variations from the Golden Mountain – ‘I’ve been listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations a lot recently; I thought it was obvious.’ – received its first performance, commissioned by the Wigmore Hall, with the support of André Hoffmann. It was inevitable, doubtless, but still striking how much the ear found, and was led to find, points of connection with Debussy at perhaps his most ‘abstract’. A generally and, for the composer, unusually slow tempo, following a toccata-like opening flourish, made no difference to the typical yet typically unique senses of mechanism and of its progress and halting. Perhaps that tempo, as well as the instrument, enabled more of a post-Webern pointillistic impression than one often gains from Birtwistle, at least at times. Stockhausen occasionally came to mind in that respect too. There was always, though, a longer, melancholic line, as well as typical outbursts of almost Schoenbergian (op.11) violence, Hodges drawing out mightily impressive sonority from the bass of his instrument.

The second half opened with Busoni’s reworking of Mozart’s extraordinary Schoenbergian Gigue, KV 574 and the fandango – which, for some reason, Busoni dubbed a bolero – from the third-act finale to The Marriage of Figaro. The first gigue section was taken very fast indeed, anything but ‘Romantic’; indeed, it emerged as very much in keeping with what we had heard in the first half. The ‘bolero’ offered relative, but only relative, relaxation, still very much in constructivist, even Bauhaus, mode: most intriguingly so in its Klemperer-on-speed Sachlichkeit. The final ‘variation’ of the gigue material offered an ambiguous, ambivalent response to some of the Lisztian tendencies announced by Debussy. It seemed all over in a flash, leaving one wishing for more – not unreasonably so, in the case of the ever-neglected Busoni.

The 2011 Gigue Machine is, according to the composer, a ‘fantasia in two parts’, its counterpoint ‘linear and sonorous against something else that is very staccato’. To my ears, it sounded, both as work and performance, closer to Stravinsky than Variations from the Golden Mountain, but also in context drew upon the example of Mozart’s – and Mozart-Busoni’s – Gigue as well as Bach. Harmonies, again probably partly as a well-nigh unavoidable consequence of pianistic tradition, sometimes suggested German music from Bach to Schoenberg. And of course, there were the wonderful, machine-like ostinatos so typical and, again, so individual in their reinvention.

Then came the remaining six Debussy Etudes. The seventh sounded as a whirlwind, within which a diatonic heart was permitted, encouraged, or enabled to beat. ‘Pour les agréments’ was, quite properly, more yielding, even charming. Debussy’s famed ambiguity came to the fore once again, though there was nothing remotely fuzzy to Hodges’s pianism. Virtuosity was still required – and received. Likewise in ‘pour les notes répétées’, though I wondered whether we might have heard more at the softer end of the dynamic range. Musical process was at any rate abundantly clear and meaningful. The sphinx-like Debussy came once again before our ears in ‘pour les sonorités opposées’, wonder on show at the exploration of harmonies – and pianistic harmonies at that. Ghosts of Tristan occasionally made themselves heard, but so did premonitions of so much of what was to come later in the twentieth century. A note of whimsy was struck in the eleventh study, albeit underpinned by something wordlessly deeper. Beguiling tone and a willingness always to yield were crucial here. ‘Pour les accords’ was duly climactic, Debussy’s knowingly cruel demands seeming very much to form as well the material as well as to bind apparently disparate earlier tendencies together. As an encore, and with a nod to Birtwistle’s initial intention to call Gigue Machine ‘Bunch of Bagatelles’, we heard Beethoven’s op.126 no.3, structure and apparent simplicity very much to the fore, without precluding sentiment or fantasy.


Thursday, 11 September 2014

Prom 73: Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Gilbert - Mahler

Royal Albert Hall

Mahler - Symphony no.3

Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Children’s Choir (chorus master: Frank-Steffen Elster)
Ladies of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir (chorus master: Gregor Meyer)
Ladies of the Leipzig Opera Chorus (chorus master: Alessandro Zuppardo)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Alan Gilbert (conductor)

It would be unfair, but one could summarise this concert with the words, ‘Senator, you’re no Leonard Bernstein.’ Unfair, because it would ignore the excellence of the playing and singing from the combined forces of Gerhild Romberger, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Children’s Choir, the ladies of both the Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir and the Leipzig Opera Chorus, and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; but not because it would seriously misrepresent my impressions of Alan Gilbert’s conducting, nor indeed of his remarks in a programme interview. Mahler withstands, indeed rejoices in, a good number of interpretative options, and one should always be one’s guard, lest one reject, Beckmesser-like, something new, simply because it is something new. However, that does not mean that anything goes. The Achilles heel of Gilbert’s performance throughout was his lack of structural understanding, or at least his inability to communicate such understanding in performance. He seemed, indeed, to have taken Bernstein at his word – as opposed to following Bernstein’s excellent practice as a conductor – in the claim cited in that interview: ‘I heard Leonard Bernstein … rehearsing it once and he said: “You know what? Finally, after all these years, I’ve found the answer to this piece. It’s like a nightmare of marches. You shouldn’t try to connect them but just live in the moment.’ Perhaps you can do that once you have internalised the piece sufficiently, but, lack of score notwithstanding, Gilbert’s understanding seemed only superficial. As for his bizarre claim in that interview that there was no Viennese tradition of performing Mahler prior to Bernstein...

The first movement, then, sounded rather like Gilbert heard Bernstein described it, save for the fact that it was not very nightmarish. The Gewandhaus Orchestra played with greatly impressive attack, but seemed encouraged to sound brasher than usual, almost as if it were being asked to ape Gilbert’s – or Bernstein’s – New York Philharmonic. What was entirely lacking here was the formal inevitability – form should be understood in dynamic, not static, terms – one hears or has heard from conductors as different as Abbado, Boulez, Haitink, Horenstein, or indeed Bernstein. (I could have done without the Big Bird-style conducting gestures too; at one stage, I thought Gilbert was about to launch into flight. O for the elegance, the economy of the first three named of alternative conductors!) At least there was, for much of the movement, a strong sense of rhythm, even if its connection with harmony appeared to elude the conductor. That dissipated, however, with some unconvincing rubato and tempo changes later on, signalling instability in very much the wrong sense. Doubtless this will all be lauded as ‘exciting’ in some quarters, but without structural command, the excellence of the orchestral playing could not make a symphony out of what sounded more akin to a very lengthy suite. The rush to the finish, however, well executed by the players, was straightforwardly vulgar – as opposed to harnessing apparent vulgarity to higher ends.

The second movement strayed closer still to Simon Rattle territory (or rather recent Rattle territory). Necessary lilt soon became unduly moulded, variations in tempo excessive. Some material was taken very fast indeed, to the extent that it sounded almost balletic. Mahler as Delibes? A point of view, I suppose, but that is the best that can be said. The third movement veered weirdly between such ‘balletic’ tendencies and imitation Bernstein ‘house of horrors’, which would have been better left for the Seventh Symphony. The problem, really, was that they arose from nowhere, and that the whole movement was more than a little rushed. At least the post-horn solos were played beautifully – as indeed was everything else.

Gerhild Romberger gave an excellent rendition of ‘O Mensch!’ though she sounded very much a mezzo rather than a contralto. Hers was nevertheless a performance of compelling honesty, in which words and music amounted to considerably more than the sum of their parts. Gilbert’s conception, though restrained, I think, in the light of the soloist’s presence, seemed unduly ‘operatic’, missing the essential simplicity, however artful in reality, of this song. The fifth movement opened with as much coughing and shuffling as singing but, once that audience contribution was out of the way, the excellence of singing and playing alike could register. (That said, Romberger’s diction was noticeably less good here.) It was taken quickly, but at least it was not unduly pulled around.

Finally, the great Adagio - well, strictly speaking, Langsam - which came off surprisingly well. At least some of the time, it appeared to speak ‘for itself’. The Leipzig strings were wonderfully warm in tone, with the necessary depth to let Mahler’s harmony tell. Although it was not always as rhythmically solid as it might have been, the performance was a definite improvement upon most of what had gone before. And the sound of this great orchestra remained a wonder in itself.



Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Prom 70: SCO/Gernon - Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, 80th birthday concert, 8 September 2014

Royal Albert Hall

Concert Overture: Ebb of Winter (London premiere)
Strathclyde Concerto no.4
An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise

Dmitri Ashkenazy (clarinet)
Robert Jordan (bagpipes)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Ben Gernon (conductor)

Image: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Unlike many such occasions, this concert actually did take place on the composer’s birthday, albeit banished to a ‘late-night’ slot. I wish I could feel greater enthusiasm for the more recent works of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, at least taken as a whole. Too often, especially during the Fourth Strathclyde Concerto, I was left hankering for something of the violence of Eight Songs for a Mad King, of Taverner, or of Worldes Blis. (When, I wonder, shall we hear the latter again? Or, in my case, hear it for the first time in concert?) One would not, of course, expect any composer to stay the same throughout his career, and it is perfectly understandable that Davies should consider such works those of an ‘angry young man’ and feel the need to do something different. At any rate, it was good to have the opportunity to hear three works of his which I had never heard ‘live’ before.

Ebb of Winter was written last year, commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for its fortieth anniversary. I found it the most compelling of the three pieces performed here, having the scale and ambition of a true tone poem.  The opening calls from horns are – and, in performance were – arresting. Within a minute or so, one hears them, all almost jazzy syncopation, something more ‘involved’ in a Schoenbergian sense, and the ‘Scottish’ rhythms of the Scotch snap: material and moods aplenty, then, for development, and it is that which most impresses. Trumpets seemed to offer a reminiscence of the frenetic world of The Lighthouse. A stentorian chorale made its mark, both uncertain and certain; so did delicate woodwind solos. The depth of orchestral sound from the SCO under Ben Gurnon belied the relatively modest forces.

The fourth of Davies’s ten Strathclyde Concertos followed, Dmitri Ashkenazy joining the orchestra. Again, the performance seemed beyond reproach, and there could be no gainsaying the composer’s command of line. Ultimately, however, what one might call its ‘meditative’ quality proved a little monotonous – and grey – for me. That is not to say that there were not interesting moments. Following the brief introductory Lento, the second section, Allegro moderato, sounded almost like whimsical Brahms, the example – at least to my ears – of Schoenberg again apparent, if somewhat tamed. (It was the First Chamber Symphony that sprang to mind, albeit with thinned-out texture.) ‘Scottish’ rhythms again were to be heard. The following Adagio was gentle, unassuming, but a bit of an endurance test. That said, a discernible thread continued to be heard, so my disappointment may simply be a matter of taste and/or mood. (It was quite late in the evening by this stage!) The marimba, however, offered some sense of relief. Ashkenazy’s account of the cadenza clearly had its measure, preparing the way for a simple, folk-like melody to emerge, the final section proving numinous, even moving.

The frankly pictorial An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise followed, the SCO players clearly enjoying themselves, some of them – and the composer, onstage, with Tom Service – being offered a drink of celebration during the performance. There was characterful, at times boisterous playing: just as it should be. The descent into the darkest hours of night was expertly handled, both by the orchestra and by Gurnon. Those more enthused than I by the sound of bagpipes will have loved what came next; the instrument made its point, even as I wondered whether Scottish independence might not be so bad a thing after all. An arrangement of Happy Birthday, apparently made by one of the SCO’s players, rounded off the evening.


Prom 69: Cleveland/Welser-Möst - Brahms and Widmann, 8 September 2014

Royal Albert Hall

Brahms – Tragic Overture, op.81
Widmann – Teufel Amor (UK premiere)
Brahms – Symphony no.2 in D major, op.73

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst (conductor)

Sadly, one of the most striking things about this concert was the small attendance. I should have assumed that a major American orchestra, with a renowned if not necessarily universally lauded conductor, playing a programme of mostly Brahms would have sold out, or near enough.  Prom 69 actually proved to be the most sparsely attended of any of the ‘mainstream’ – that is, at the Albert Hall, and not ‘late night’ – Proms I have been to this season. Quite why, I am not at all sure; it is not as if we are overburdened with opportunities to hear the Cleveland Orchestra. It was my first such opportunity, and I was very glad to do so, for whatever the disappointments of Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting, it remained a privilege to hear the orchestra itself.

The other most striking feature was the British premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Teufel Amor, his 2009 (revised in 2011) ‘symphonic poem after Schiller’ – both the work and what seemed to me a very fine performance. The composer’s description on Schott’s website offers a helpful introduction:

After the rejection of his drama Fiesco in Mannheim, Schiller offered his poem Teufel Amor to a bookseller in Frankfurt for 25 guilders. As the bookseller only offered him 18 guilders for the poem, '[Schiller] preferred to remain destitute rather than wasting his poetry on a skinflint who was unappreciative of his artistry' (Gustav Schwab) and took his poem away with him. Only a tiny scrap of this poem has survived – albeit an exceedingly poetic and also musical fragment:

Süßer Amor, verweile / Im melodischen Flug
[Sweet Amor, remain in melodic flight]

A movement as a state of being, and a state of being as movement: an apparently contradictory pair, just like the title of the poem, Teufel Amor. Love however contains more contradictions than anything else in the world, epitomising the extremes of heaven and hell, pleasure and suffering, paradise and snake-pit. Whoever has been touched by the arrow of love is at the same time a human wounded by an arrow. My imagination was fired by Schiller’s fragment; his conception of the flight of Amor as the heights and depths of a melodic progression inspired me to compose a symphonic hymnos which praises the marvels of love – even in its devilish incarnation.

What Paul Griffiths, in his programme note, described as an ‘abyssal darkness of love … [with which] the work begins,’ sounded, with its pointillistic low brass and woodwind, as if Wagner were refracted through Webern.  Gradually, we discerned a thematic cauldron, scenting a musical brew with a definite sense of the Teufel, even of Hölle. Eerie ghosts of an expressionist past – this was surely inconceivable without Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces – announced themselves, as did Strauss and Mahler in the hymn-music. Fragments strained hard toward, sometimes attained, a fragile (late Romantic?) wholeness. Long violin lines – expertly played – seemed both to aid and call that into question, even before the advent of a waltzing phantasmagoria. Mahler seemed ever more prominent, in the pathos of individual lines (Joshua Smith’s flute in particular) and indeed in the harmony. It occurred to me that this was a work that would go very well with Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. There was much, which, taken out of context, might have been thought ‘late Romantic’ or ‘early modernist’, but context, of course was crucial. Material no longer means the same thing – and this was clearly part of the pathos, even perhaps Widmann’s tragic intent.

Brahms, alas, fared less well, especially in the Tragic Overture, which Welser-Möst managed both to drive hard and to have sound well-nigh interminable. (It has always struck me as one of Brahms’s most succinct pieces.) The extent of that driving would surely have made George Szell blanch, but it was also quite without Szell’s sense of purpose. The Cleveland sound, however, was wonderful: dark, rich, finely articulated. At its best, the performance evinced a certain turbulence, redolent perhaps of some of the composer’s piano pieces; at its worst, it was merely harried. That is, until torpor set in. There was a sad lack of coherence, even on what appeared to be Welser-Möst’s own terms.

The Second Symphony opened more promisingly. Its first movement was certainly not unduly driven, but tempo fluctuations were far from entirely convincing. Again, it was well played – beautiful woodwind detail in particular – but proved interpretatively faceless, save for genuine strength in the cross-rhythms. Brahms’s ‘geniality’ nevertheless seemed all too unalloyed, untroubled by the dark shadows that make this symphony what it is. The slow movement was taken at a perfectly reasonable tempo considered in abstraction, but Welser-Möst’s over-conducting made for a pedantic impression. One heard far too many bar-lines, even beats and their sub-divisions. It soon faded into generic listlessness. The third movement was the most successful of the four. On the fast side, very much so, it was nevertheless made to work. Playing was well-pointed; detail was apparent without obscuring the greater picture. The finale, alas, succumbed again to the strange temptation to drive too hard, too inflexibly. There was, perhaps more damagingly still, little sense of what connected the four movements; it was as if Brahms had composed a suite rather than a symphony. The First Hungarian Dance was offered as an encore: again, excellently played, but Welser-Möst’s rubato proved laboured in the extreme.


Monday, 8 September 2014

Programme essay for Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven: 'Tributes to Mozart: Misunderstanding and Development'

(This was originally published in the programme for a 2014 Salzburg Festival concert, performed by the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra and Vladimir Fedoseyev.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Symphony No. 28 in C major K. 200

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Orchestral Suite No. 4 in G major ‘Mozartiana’ op. 61

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major ‘Eroica’ op. 55

An expansion of symphonic scale

Mozart’s 28th Symphony, ambitious by the standards of his earlier Salzburg symphonies, was most likely written in 1774 for the Archbishop’s Hofkapelle, or at least with that orchestra in mind. Alongside the 25th or ‘little’ G minor Symphony K. 183 and Symphony No. 29 in A major K. 201, it signals an expansion of symphonic scale in the composer’s oeuvre. Alfred Einstein went so far as to describe it as a milestone in Mozart’s development. In the ‘Viennese’ four movements rather than the Italianate three generally favoured in Salzburg, the Symphony, or rather its composer, also takes advantage of a thriving musical life belying Salzburg’s (partly Mozart-induced) provincial reputation, employing, in addition to strings, two oboes, two horns and two trumpets. Mozart may have longed for clarinets – he certainly soon would, following his experience of Mannheim and Paris – but Salzburg served him far from poorly, not least concerning prospects for performance. Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, visiting the city at this time, remarked upon ‘especially distinguished’ instrumentalists.

The first movement is strikingly motivic in its construction, its very opening setting up contest and interaction between opening full-orchestral chords – what could be simpler than a descending C major arpeggio? – and a trill-based sequence. Although there is the expected move to the dominant for a more lyrical second subject, blessed by delightful oboe colouring and ornamentation, the movement takes its leave as much from that initial motivic tension as from any subsequent contrast. In the F major Andante, muted strings lend a veiled, intimate note to its serenade-like progress. Trumpets are silent throughout; now is not the time for rejoicing, but for whispering of nocturnal confidences, repeated trills especially noteworthy. Minor-mode colouring in the brief development section heightens a sense of quasi-operatic emotion: for Mozart, the imaginary stage is never far away. A courtly Minuet, its solo horn call particularly delightful, offers anticipated yet never routine contrast with an initially delicate Trio, whose sudden unison chromatic turn offers a surprise in miniature that looks forward to the composer’s ‘late’ preoccupations, such as in the ‘great’ G minor Symphony K. 550. The scintillating Finale shows the young composer at the height of his powers, its scurrying figures – again, a trilling motif proves crucial – capable both of yielding to a subsidiary, lyrical theme and, ultimately, a traditionally festal C major climax.

Within a Fabergé egg

Tchaikovsky esteemed Mozart above all other composers and Don Giovanni above all other of Mozart’s compositions. ‘The most beautiful opera ever written’, he averred to his patroness, the unconvinced Nadezhda von Meck. For the work’s 1887 centenary, he offered tribute in the guise of his Fourth and final Orchestral Suite, entitled ‘Mozartiana’. Tchaikovsky orchestrated four works by Mozart, at least three out of four unlikely to have been known to fellow Mozart lovers, let alone to the general concert-going public. The three connoisseur’s works were all for solo piano: the Gigue in G major K. 574, the D major Minuet K. 355 and the Variations on ‘Unser dummel Pöbel meint’ K. 455, also helpfully written in G major, ensuring that the Suite would finish in the key in which it had opened, without need for transposition. The third movement, ‘Preghiera’, is based upon the late motet Ave verum corpus, albeit via a transcription by Liszt, who had also used the work as the transfiguring culmination of his Evocation à la Chapelle Sixtine.

As so often, one learns more about the composer offering ‘tribute’ than its recipient. The Gigue is for listeners today perhaps most remarkable for its 12-note flirtations and its similarly Schoenbergian adoption of one of Bach’s forms. Here it simply sounds graceful, innocuous even; its chromaticism is suave and charming, hardly radical. Tchaikovsky’s attitude was not at all unusual for the 19th century: Schumann had pointed to the ‘Grecian lightness and grace’ of Mozart’s ‘great’ G minor Symphony, rather than to its tragic drive and extreme chromatic dislocations. Moreover, though Tchaikovsky could hardly have been immune to the daemonic strains of Don Giovanni, he nevertheless referred to it, as we have seen, in terms of ‘beauty’. Orchestral colouring has nothing in common with Mozart’s symphonies; despite the scaled-down orchestration by late Romantic standards, the wind writing might have leaped from the pages of any of Tchaikovsky’s essays in the genre. The Minuet is treated with similar, sugarcoated affection; Mozart is safely, nostalgically treasured within the cocoon of a Fabergé egg. Springing from Liszt rather than directly from the ‘source’, the third movement employs Liszt’s introduction and conclusion. Tchaikovsky’s harp arpeggios and the swelling strings of the orchestral climax contribute to a distinctly 19th-century conception of the ‘celestial’: sentimental, perhaps, but undoubtedly sincere.

Mozart’s variations on a theme from Osmin’s aria in La Rencontre imprévue, Gluck’s opéra comique, offer Tchaikovsky plenty of scope, well taken, for orchestral fantasy. Whether syncopated cymbals in the second variation, magical flute solo work in the third, balletic glockenspiel doubling in the eighth, concertante violin in the expansive Adagio ninth, such inspirations – and there are many more – have no interest in ‘authentic’ fidelity and emerge all the more winningly for that. The first performance was given in St Petersburg on 26 November 1887, the composer conducting: the only such case amongst his orchestral suites. It is no coincidence that this very personal tribute has been frequently performed as a ballet.

Everything that is truly human

Beethoven’s tributes to Mozart (and Haydn) were of a very different nature: more a matter of extending his predecessors’ symphonic explorations into new territory than of direct homage. The Third Symphony presents an expansion of scope that would transform symphonic writing forever. If the story behind its subtitle, in shortened version the ‘Eroica’, is well known, the intended dedication to Napoleon furiously rescinded when the First Consul became Emperor, there is a broader point to be made. The generic idea of a heroic symphony composed to celebrate the memory of a great man suits Beethoven’s broader humanism far better than any specifically named example. To quote Donald Tovey: ‘In order to be literary, it is not necessary to be unmusical. Beethoven does not think a symphony a reasonable vehicle for a chronological biography of Napoleon; but he does think it the best possible way of expressing his feelings about heroes and hero-worship.’ Or, as one of Beethoven’s most distinguished interpreters, Richard Wagner, wrote in a ‘programmatic explanation’ of 1851, sincerely if subjectively prefiguring his own conception of the ‘purely human’:

The term “heroic” must be taken in the widest sense, and not simply as relating to a military hero. If we understand “hero” to mean, above all, the whole, complete man, in possession of all purely human feelings – love, pain and strength – at their richest and most intense, we shall comprehend the correct object, as conveyed to us by the artist in the speaking, moving tones of his work. The artistic space of this work is occupied by […] feelings of a strong, fully formed individuality […] which contains within itself everything that is truly human.

We should also, however, consider that expansion of symphonic scope in terms closer to what has, for better or worse, become known as ‘absolute’ music. The sheer scale of the first movement is unprecedented. Contrast it, for instance, with the first movement of the Mozart Symphony to hear how far symphonic form had developed – always a crucial word with Beethoven – in only 30 years. And remember that Haydn was still alive, if no longer able to compose. It is difficult to know at what one should marvel most. The generative simplicity of the opening E flat major triad, or its decisive occlusion by the cellos’ descent, E flat–D–C sharp? The use to which that melodic chromatic turn is put in the recapitulation, facilitating symmetrical modulation to the supertonic and subsequently to the flattened seventh degree, or the masterly resolution in the tonic thereafter, balancing yet extending further that tension?  The scale of the development section proper or the ‘second development’ in the coda? Thankfully, it is never a case of either-or; with Beethoven, it is all or nothing.

The Marcia funebre is also on the grand scale, harking back to French Revolutionary ceremonial, its rondo form permitting of episodes for which ‘episode’ sounds too incidental: for instance, a double fugue. This is an oration to which Felix Weingartner understandably attached the word ‘Aeschylean’. Funeral games follow in the Scherzo, memorializing the hero’s deeds: again on a scale which, although concentrated, extends in dramatic as well as musical scope far beyond the Classical minuet. The three horns of the Trio mark another broadening of orchestral horizons. It is difficult, probably undesirable, not to consider the Finale’s novel form as a set of variations, but it is certainly of a more complex variety than the Mozartian example we heard in Tchaikovsky’s orchestration. There are worse ways of thinking about it – more to the point, of experiencing it – than Tovey’s directive to ‘identify its material under three headings, a Bass, a Tune and a Fugue’. The coda offers another example of Beethoven’s method of perpetual development, modulation suggesting yet never quite achieving a further ‘variation’, preparing rather for a conclusion which both returns to the material of the movement’s introduction and passes beyond it. Perhaps this is the realm of Wagner’s ‘everything that is truly human’.

For what unfolds is a musical drama as much as an ‘abstract’ form; Beethoven’s reach and humanity are greater than any single analysis could conceive of, let alone tell. We should permit movement and Symphony as a whole to tell their own tales rather than preoccupying ourselves with what it ‘is’ or ‘is not’; formal codification comes after the event. The presence of fugal elements throughout the Symphony is not the least of its unifying characteristics and processes. Perhaps the greatest, however, is the claim to thoroughgoing, organicist development and, latterly, to the requirement for mediated understanding. In the words of Joseph Kerman, ‘astonishing is the quality of “potential” that informs the main themes of the three fast movements. Two of them require (and in due course receive) horizontal or vertical completion, and the other is presented in a state of almost palpable evolution.’ Such was an inheritance and a challenge Berlioz and Mendelssohn, Liszt and Schumann, Wagner and Brahms could readily accept, and in any case could not avoid.

Programme essay for Beethoven violin sonatas - 'Approaching and Attaining Maturity'

(This essay was originally published in the programme for a concert given at the 2014 Salzburg Festival by Frank-Peter Zimmermann and Christian Zacharias.)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

Violin Sonata No. 1 in D major op. 12/1
Violin Sonata No. 3 in E flat major op. 12/3
Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major op. 12/2
Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major ‘Frühlingssonate’ op. 24

All but one of Beethoven’s ten numbered violin sonatas – strictly, sonatas ‘for piano and violin’ – were written between 1797 and 1803, when the ‘Kreutzer’ op. 47 was composed, the sole exception being the final G major Sonata op. 96, composed in 1812. The four sonatas heard in this programme originate from a shorter period still, 1797 to 1801, only the ‘Spring’ Sonata op. 24 postdating the composer’s First Symphony. In the conventional typology, then, these are all ‘early’ works, though that need not lessen their stature.

Voice, temperament and ambition

The three op. 12 sonatas, dedicated as a set to Antonio Salieri, were not in fact Beethoven’s first works for violin and piano. He had already written a fragmentary work in A major at the beginning of the 1790s, though what we have amounts to about four minutes’ worth at most. More importantly, we have a subsequent set of variations on Mozart’s ‘Se vuol ballare’ from Le nozze di Figaro, a Rondo in G major and Six German Dances. The sonatas, however, were works on a different scale, clearly with roots in earlier music, above all that of Mozart, and yet equally clearly works of the younger composer. Denis Matthews summarized this first, op.12 set: ‘Unlike the continuo sonatas of the Baroque period, with Bach as a notable exception, the sharing of interest was now a first essential, though Beethoven’s textures were already more robust and less delicately poised than Mozart’s, and the scent of battle never far away’. There is doubtless a role played here by the swift pace of technological development, especially with respect to the piano, Beethoven stretching his Stein instruments to the limit and perhaps beyond; more decisive still, however, would be Beethoven’s personal voice, temperament and ambition.

Allegro con brio is an assuredly Beethovenian marking, assigned to the first movement of the First Sonata in D major. ‘Brio’ there is certainly to be heard from the outset. Unison D major arpeggios in both parts are emphatically insisted upon, briefly continued in ‘accompaniment’ role by the piano, primacy soon alternating or co-existing between parts. We may notice even at this early stage a formal dynamism particular to Beethoven; within the bounds of the forms he had inherited, there is nevertheless a sense, if not so strong in every case, of continuous development, most notable of all in transitions. Boundaries between first and second subjects – if a relatively old-fashioned formulation may be permitted – are by no means always clearcut and Beethoven’s contrapuntal combination of themes complicates the matter further. ‘Learned, learned, always learned, no naturalness, no melody’, claimed the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung; for all that we may disagree, it was probably such practice, also disdained by many critics and audiences in late Mozart, which elicited such a response. Moreover, for all the talk one sometimes hears of Schubert’s different, tripartite path, provocatively diverging from Beethoven’s binary dialectics, the evidence here suggests otherwise; for neither composer is form a formula. So-called subsidiary themes will often, as here, receive developmental treatment in the ‘development’ section proper, relatively brief though that may be in this instance.

The second movement, in A major, is a set of variations. Again Mozart seems to be the starting point, but few would confuse the two composers, a common if far from identical lyricism notwithstanding. The move to the tonic minor in the third variation, while also common practice in the variation forms of Mozart, Haydn and other Classical composers, has a vehemence that is characteristically Beethoven’s. Likewise the sforzandi in the compound duple time Finale, which might otherwise be heard with post-Mozartian ‘hunting’ ears. Likewise also the tonal distancing of the episode that opens in F major; it parallels, far from coincidentally, a similar move in the first movement. For there is a delight in surprising the listener here, a delight which owes more than a little to Haydn, but which again never quite sounds ‘like’ that of Beethoven’s teacher.

The E flat major Sonata, the third of the op. 12 set, also opens with the fundamental building block of a tonic arpeggio. Extrovert ebullience in the piano part – this is a splendid key for pianistic display – meets not with violin accompaniment but with an instrument which, again to quote Matthews, ‘reinforces the opening phrases’. So involved does the game of catch-up become in this delightfully playful movement, both instruments urging each other on to new deeds, that one quite loses sight or care of which has ‘priority’, sure enough evidence that the question is not the right one to ask. Syncopations, a Beethoven trademark, add further to a sense of dislocation that is not disconcerting but delightful and a sense of slight tipsiness, instrumental hiccoughs and all, is far from unwelcome. We trip up, too, sent down blind tonal alleys, only to be told abruptly, yet in good humour, that the joke is on us: a Haydnesque practice put to new ends. The slow movement is the first Adagio in Beethoven’s series, con molto espressione. As that might suggest, this C major movement is very much the emotional core of the work, its aria style certainly suggestive of Mozart, but far from interchangeable. Interestingly the tonal relationship of the movement to the whole is the same as that of the E flat major Piano Sonata op. 7. The closing Rondo is closer to Haydn in character, perhaps even with a hint of the ‘Hungarian’ side of that composer’s music. High spirits are generally though not entirely unalloyed, yet they never pall.

In between these two works comes the A major Sonata. Its first movement is of different character – more affable, wittier – its compound duple metre perhaps more often found in a finale. The piano finds itself a little more often in an ‘accompanying’ role, though there is still a great deal of friendly give-and-take. Perhaps Mozart’s A major Violin Sonata K. 526, its opening movement also in compound duple time, offers something of a model, but here, perhaps surprisingly, it is Beethoven’s mood that is lighter. That should not, however, be taken to imply any lack of purpose; the derivation of so much material from an opening two-note tag binds together the movement at least as closely as any other heard this evening. A songful, almost Schubertian slow movement ensues in the tonic minor, its tender longing in context quite disarming. Chromaticism tends to be melodic rather than harmonic, yet offers just the right degree of pathos. The Finale marks something of a return to the good-natured opening, Allegro piacevole denoting pleasure rather than fire. It too is in rondo form, a fine equilibrium struck between the variation of its episodes and the welcome return of the principal theme, though Beethoven’s move to the close also benefits from an element of modulatory surprise. While it is difficult for us to imagine to what negative contemporary observations concerning ‘forced modulations’ and ‘hostile entanglements’ in these three sonatas might have referred, perhaps it was to those very aspects which delight us and which distinguish Beethoven from his models. 

Nature and beyond

Beethoven wrote two sonatas in 1800 and 1801, op. 23 in A minor and the ever-popular – it is tempting to reach for the clichéd ‘evergreen’ – ‘Spring’ Sonata in F major op. 24. Both works were dedicated to the composer’s Viennese patron, the banker and art collector Count Moritz von Fries (also the dedicatee of the C major String Quintet and the Seventh Symphony). For all the virtues of the op. 12 set, these two sonatas signal an advance in technical and emotional means, a greater ease with the form and thus the prospect of expanding its possibilities. In short, they offer more than occasional intimations of the composer’s ‘middle period’. Although it would be perverse to quarrel with the nickname of the ‘Spring’ Sonata, there are certainly sterner moments to this vernal work. Yes, the opening lyricism is touching in a fashion that can hardly but recall Mozart, yet the transition to the second group – note that once again we are thinking of transition – and much of the development have the listener sit up and notice; the landscape does not always gently undulate and, generally, sunny climes are not without their clouds. That said, it is difficult not to hear intimations of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony’s birdsong in the B flat major Adagio alongside a continuation, even sublimation of the serenity of much of the first movement. Communion with nature, and perhaps with something beyond, seems unarguably to be the point here. Melodic elaboration, sometimes on one instrument, sometimes on the other, sometimes simultaneous, offers an ethereal and yet ‘pastoral’ sense of heightened magic, without disruption to the movement’s flow. This rather enhances that general progress, approaching, perhaps even attaining the sublimity we associate with ‘middle period’ Beethoven. Again, the Sixth Symphony in particular comes to mind.

We nearly did not have the Scherzo at all, or at least not as it now stands. Beethoven’s initial conception of it was as a minuet, prior not only to its speeding up but also to the introduction of its madcap syncopations. Its brevity is striking; so is the sense of violin and piano sparking ideas off and inciting one another. Moreover, the composer considered omitting it, perhaps unsure as to whether the form required the full complement of four movements. Its welcome injection of kinetic energy, of a febrile intensity we more readily associate with late Beethoven, even with Bartók and Webern, would be sorely missed. At any rate, it fits perfectly between the slow movement and the post-Mozartian Rondo with which the Sonata concludes. The sheer generosity of melodic profusion has much in common with Beethoven’s greatest predecessor in the form and stands as a contrast to Beethoven’s more typical practice. A darker side offers ample dramatic contrast – the minor mode is more prevalent than this Sonata’s reputation might suggest – but not so as to detract from what, qualifications aside, remains one of Beethoven’s sunniest collaborative creations. 


Programme Essay for Mozart's Symphonies 39-41: 'A Drama of the Soul'

(This essay was originally published in the programme for a performance of these symphonies by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus musicus Wien, at the 2014 Salzburg Festival.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Symphony No. 39 in E flat major K. 543
Symphony No. 40 in G minor K. 550
Symphony No. 41 in C major ‘Jupiter’ K. 551

Programming, properly understood, is fun but difficult. Thoughtful performers have long taken it upon themselves to present music by Mozart and Schubert in tandem with works by composers of the Second Viennese School. All-Mozart programmes have become rarer than they should; opportunities to hear Mozart’s last three symphonies in sequence, apparently a post-Romantic conception that would not have been his, are now infrequent. Yet, although we may draw comparisons and contrasts, perhaps even considering them à la Mahler as part of a greater meta-symphony, concentrated listening nevertheless continues to suggest, to eyes and to ears, tendencies pointing towards Mozart’s Austro-German successors (and back to his predecessors: the Bachs, Fux, and Handel).

Nikolaus Harnoncourt is not the only present-day conductor to wish to redress the balance. Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim have recently performed the hallowed final triptych in single concerts. Nevertheless, Harnoncourt remains different, avowedly wishing to present the symphonies as having been planned not just by him, but also by Mozart, as an intégrale, possessing its own architecture. Harnoncourt even considers the celebrated finale to the ‘Jupiter’ as a finale to all three works – which can certainly be our experience in performance. In the conductor’s view, this is an oratorio without words, a drama of the soul (he employs the German Seelendrama ),which in some senses may be understood to mirror, to dramatise the life of that soul, perhaps looking forward to Haydn’s The Seasons as well as to the works of CPE Bach and Handel, Mozart having re-orchestrated some of the latter’s essays in the genre. Perhaps liberated by the technical capabilities of instruments vis­-à-vis voices and indeed, by the lack of concrete words, such is the typically provocative conception of Mozart Harnoncourt wishes to present.

There remain surprising lacunae in our knowledge of Mozart’s life (not the least of temptations towards romanticizing). Little is known of the circumstances of composition and performance of these symphonies, in stark contrast to the acclaim received by the preceding ‘Prague’ Symphony. We know, even if we cannot quite believe the astonishing fact, that Mozart wrote all three within a six-week-period during the summer of 1788, yet have no certain evidence of performance. The old seductive idea that he therefore wrote them as a statement for posterity no longer garners acceptance. Perhaps they were written for subscription concerts ‘in the Casino’ on Spiegelgasse in Vienna’s Innere Stadt. The second version of the G minor Symphony (without clarinets), however, suggests a particular performing imperative, perhaps for a 1791 Tonkünstler-Societät concert, at which Salieri conducted an unidentified Mozart symphony. Or they may have been written with a visit to London in mind. Posterity has nevertheless made them its own. Brahms, keen to distinguish between novelty and ‘inner value’, remarked in 1896 that, although Beethoven’s First Symphony had offered a ‘new outlook […] the last three symphonies by Mozart are much more important!’ That once-heretical judgement now sounds uncontroversial. 

Unlike the famously minuet-less ‘Prague’, all three works are in four movements. The 39th Symphony is the only one to follow on from the ‘Prague’ in having a slow introduction, its E flat major grandeur presaging that of Die Zauberflöte, but all the opening movements are unsurprisingly in sonata form. Contrast between first and second groups remains an important guiding principle, yet so does dynamic propulsion, the tension between those principles providing part of an operatic, formal and musical drama. Indeed, the second group of the ‘Jupiter’ takes us unmistakably into the realm of opera buffa, incorporating a quotation from Mozart’s insertion arietta ‘Un bacio di mano’ (K. 541). It offers a perfect foil to the trumpets and drums of earlier material, replete with resonances of the traditional Missa solemnis figuraliter and the seria pomp-to-come of La clemenza di Tito. Dramatic tension of a proto-Romantic order is overriding in the 40th Symphony; its opening lower string throbbing presents an on-going scene of ‘accompaniment’ prior to the entry of the first subject above. (Harnoncourt points to the lack of a ‘beginning’ as such, comparing the movement to a Vivaldi Adagio.) Its nagging semitonal fall prepares us, if only slightly, for one of Mozart’s most disorienting chromatic explorations. The opening of the development shocks us by yanking first-group material into the remote key of F sharp minor and then attempting, though not succeeding, its Mephistophelian negation through harmonic and contrapuntal means. Not for nothing was Schoenberg drawn to its analysis in his Harmonielehre.

Slow movements now carry greater emotional weight than had generally been Mozart’s symphonic practice, perhaps influenced by his piano concertos. If the slow movement of Symphony No. 39 lacks a development section, at least as conventionally understood, that is only because development – hints of the ‘developing variation’ Schoenberg discerned in Brahms and his own music – continues throughout the recapitulation. All is transformed by what has come before. Chromaticism again haunts the slow movement of the 40th Symphony; if we are in the major mode, it is hardly at its most affirmative. Complexity, whether harmonic or formal, reaches a new level in the slow, sarabande-like movement of the ‘Jupiter’. It may not be lengthy but it is powerfully concentrated.

Minuets (and Trios) retain their origins in dance, though are entirely symphonic in conception.  There is certainly an aristocratic grandeur to the Minuet of No. 39 that would not have been out of place in Vienna’s Redoutensaal, yet its woodwind luxuriance marks it out as something more. The Trio transports us to a ravishing serenade-like Elysium, pointing towards Così fan tutte. Mozart’s G minor daemon drives home cross-rhythms in the 40th Symphony that serve to demonstrate our distance from the ballroom. Perhaps most extraordinary of all is the chromaticism of the initially ‘simple’ if sinuous Minuet of the ‘Jupiter’. Ultra-chromatic subversion of the tonic results in a passage of just six beats which includes every pitch class save that of C. Yet however much that has us peer into the Schoenbergian future, Mozart’s chromaticism retains a great deal, though certainly not all, of its meaning by virtue of its relationship to a fundamental diatonic tonality. ‘Home’ remains a place to which Mozart returns, though who knows where a longer life might have taken him.

Thematic economy marks the E flat major Finale, the second theme a development of the first. The movement seems over in a flash, a quicksilver operatic resolution. Tragic complexity continues to rule in the G minor. One passage of chromatic and rhythmic disjuncture delineates a sequence of all 11 pitches, save for the tonic; this may in a sense be the most radical of all Mozart’s finales and meaning is again imparted partly through contrast between such exploration and the tonality of ‘home’, however uncomforting. In Georg Knepler’s words, this Symphony ‘clings relentlessly to the minor mode’. It was, Knepler noted, not an unusual practice for Mozart, though Mozart’s other G minor masterwork, the String Quintet K. 516, does turn to the tonic major. Tragedy is preferred over a Beethovenian-Romantic journey from ‘darkness to light’ or even the Classical dramatic happy ending. Mozart never confuses sentiment with sentimentality; catharsis shakes us to the core.
Simplicity and complexity

In his article on the Trio of the 40th Symphony, Leonard B. Meyer argued that the belief to which he had earlier subscribed that ‘complexity was at least a necessary condition for value’, was ‘if not, entirely mistaken, at least somewhat confused’, since what was crucial in music, as exemplified by this Trio, was ‘relational richness, and such richness (or complexity) is in no way incompatible with simplicity of musical vocabulary and grammar’. He proceeded to argue that it was possible for the listener to discern the Trio’s complexities ‘precisely because these arise out of uncomplicated, unassuming tonal means’. Meyer was certainly right to point to that possibility, though the issue of ‘relational richness’ quite rightly complicates – in his sense as well as others – given that the ‘relative’ simplicity of the Trio’s ‘tonal means’ may be understood to acquire some of its meaning from its contrast with complexity elsewhere. There would not be a sense of relaxation were it not for the nigh Schoenbergian extremity of some of Mozart’s writing beforehand. Harnoncourt speaks even of the ‘destruction’ of tonal melody and harmony.

Mozart’s compositional style, here and elsewhere, offers something quite extraordinary, akin to a dialectic in equilibrium, in which simplicity and complexity seem on the one hand to be held in balance and, on the other, dialectically to depend upon one another and to find themselves in dramatic conflict with each other. We may offer all manner of possible explanations for that. Mozart’s experience as an opera composer certainly informs his symphonic writing – sometimes to the chagrin of those who, like Wagner, wish that Mozart’s conception of sonata form had conformed more closely to expectations conditioned by Haydn and Beethoven. The composer’s historical position is another factor. The stage at which Mozart’s musical language finds itself is somewhat analogous to the world of Newtonian physics, then in its popular heyday, a tonal universe extending its bounds almost rationally, tonal relations, remote and close, almost yet not quite classifiable. And yet there remains a ‘progressive’ imperative, ineluctably urging him on towards chromatic dissolution.

Harmonic language is not the only element one may consider in such a fashion. One can learn a great deal from Mozart’s irregularity of phrase length. It is, however, perhaps the most important or at least the most readily apparent. Moreover, as with Schoenberg, the potential, if not yet the realization, of harmonic dissolution necessitated a more rigid form of musical organization. What could be more ‘organized’ than a fugue, or at least fugal writing, in the case of the Finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony fused with sonata form?

The sense of a finale offering the culminating achievement of the work, its telos or goal, is not the least of Mozart’s legacies. For the ‘finale problem’ experienced by Beethoven and every German Romantic symphonic composer – a good few non-Germans too – may, with a little exaggeration, find its origin in Mozart’s tour de force. A requirement of Classical balance and the scope for throwaway finale humour – always more Haydn’s thing than Mozart’s – have been dealt a blow by a teleology throwing the greatest weight upon a climactic final movement. Lest that seem Romantic sentimentalism, there is a great deal of evidence to indicate that the Finale of the ‘Jupiter’ was understood as such at the time. Vincent Novello would recount a conversation with Franz Xaver Mozart, Wolfgang’s son: ‘he considered the Finale to his father’s sinfonie in C – which [Johann Peter] Salomon [the impresario who commissioned Haydn’s London Symphonies] christened the Jupiter – to be the highest triumph of instrumental composition, and I agree with him.’ Complexity is triumphantly reinstated, if ever it had gone away, yet the coda’s quintuple invertible counterpoint – all the movement’s themes are combined in mind-boggling combination and permutation – is all the more miraculous for how lightly-worn the learning is. Yes, there is triumph, but there is no sense of forcibly welding the themes together (as, say, in Wagner’s Meistersinger counterpoint). Mozart’s Finale is the product of an 18th-century art that conceals art, offering the apparent paradox of effortless climax. It is, moreover, difficult not to feel some sense of signing off, of culmination to more than a single work. Had Mozart lived longer, he would certainly have composed other symphonies longer, but he did not; Harnoncourt’s thesis of an ‘instrumental oratorio’ may yet shed new light upon the particularity of this climax.