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Mostly Mozart at The Barbican


By John Sidgwick

LONDON, 15 July 2002 - The first of a series of four weekends of music, devoted largely to works by Mozart, opened on 11 July at the Barbican Centre with a concert by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and its associated choir under the baton of the French conductor, Emmanuel Krivine. There were two pieces on the programme: the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K467 and the Mass in C minor, K427.

Those who remember Krivine in his initial career as a violinist, one that was cut short by a motor accident, will recall the elegance and precision of his performances, two characteristics which he has carried over into his work as a conductor and which are complemented by searching musicianship. It is not surprising, therefore, that the excellent Academy of St Martin in the Fields, which contains a number of Britain's finest string players and was led on this occasion by Kenneth Sillito, a legendary player of chamber music, should respond so admirably to Krivine's direction.

The opening tutti of the Mozart piano concerto was a joy and Louis Lortie lent promises of further joys when it came to his entry. Alas, he and the audience were quickly betrayed by the sheer unsuitability of the instrument on which he was performing. The massive concert grand, for all the world like the deck of an aircraft carrier, was simply too huge by far for the music of Mozart. It is not a question of loud and soft, it is one of clarity. Quick passages, however well executed and pedalled, tend to turn into mud on such an instrument. Even though the Academy of St Martin in the Fields is not a period instrument orchestra, the presence alongside them of a piano such as the one that Lortie was performing on was totally inappropriate.

It is said that the golden age of piano manufacture lay between the years 1900 and 1939. It would be unrealistic to expect the managers of concert halls to include such instruments in their equipment or even to hire them should they be available, but it would surely be possible to find pianos that meet the needs of Mozart performance. As it was, only in the flowing Andante with its generally limited range of dynamics did the audience obtained a glimpse of Mozart's real intentions.

There was much to be pleased about in the performance of the Mass in C minor. To begin with, there was the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chorus, which at every moment lived up to its reputation for clarity, flexibility and beauty of tone. It cannot be easy for soloists, however firm their reputations, to stand and deliver in front of such a group. The singers on this occasion included Lynne Dawson, who captivated millions of people the world over with her moving presence and performance at the funeral of Princess Diana. She was partnered by the Italian soprano Patrizia Biccirè and two French singers, Yann Beuron (tenor) and Stéphane Degout (bass). At one or two moments, I got the impression that Krivine was giving his soloists too much rope, particularly in the Quoniam trio, where they seemed to be running away from him emotionally with just a shade too many vocal flourishes. I feel sure that given more rehearsal time and more performances, he would have rectified this. Nevertheless, the performance overall was one to remember.

A word about the venue. When the Barbican first came on stream in the 1970's, it attracted a great deal of criticism. Visitors experienced difficulties in finding their way around the vast premises, the acoustics of the concert hall were far from satisfactory and the programming was said to lack imagination. Things are a great deal better now, notably as a result of the wise and efficient impetus given by Managing Director, John Tusa and extensive alterations to the hall have improved the sound considerably. In fact, from the visitors point of view, the Barbican can now lay claim to being a most agreeable venue. There are good parking facilities and an abundance of places in which to eat and drink before, during and after concerts. Moreover, the facilities for musicians are satisfactory, although artists being artists, they will always find something to complain about!

John Sidgwick writes on music in Britain and France for Culturekiosque.com.

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