The WSO jumped ahead of the Vienna on Sunday. Conductor John Gibbons gave a Viennese Hogmanay ticket to a provincial ex-monastery organist from Upper Austria going under the name of Anton Bruckner. Vienna had eventually warmed to Herr Bruckner’s symphonies of serious and part-religious intent which nevertheless contain dance music, though in more rural style than the urban society evening ball style of the Strauss Family now sophisticated by well-heeled Viennese at New Year.
Plenty of these favourites were on offer from the WSO, who yet again packed the Assembly Hall with eager lovers of waltzes such as By The Beautiful Blue Danube and the Skaters, polkas like Trisch Trasch, Tik Tak, and Thunder And Lightning, marches such as The Radetzky, and overtures like Light Cavalry and Merry Widow.
Gibbons garnished the programme with Khachaturyan’s Masquerade Suite Galop, Emile Waldteufel’s Schwanda the Bagpiper Polka, Procida Bucalossi’s Ciribiribin Waltz, plus extra waltzes by Strauss the elder and younger, respectively the Nordseebilder and the Morning Papers. The latter was spiced by Gibbons’ mischievous humour when he asked to the audience to recall halcyon days of newspapers at breakfast and had them sympathising with the Royal Family’s current discomfort over the allegations about the Duke of York.
Bruckner’s presence at the party was announced early. Second up was ‘Pilsner Dance’. Gibbons has recorded a completed version of Bruckner’s mighty unfinished 9th Symphony with Aarhus Symphony Orchestra of Holland, due out this year on Danacord. And to give the composer a legitimate top-table seat, Gibbons’ own arranging and re-scoring skills paraded from the 9th Symphony the devilish Trio from the Scherzo deftly linked up with (centrally placed) the beautiful melody from what Bruckner lovers know as the ‘song period’ slot in his characteristic first-movement planning.
It was a highly original idea, very different, very special, and while unadvertised and entirely unexpected, not out of place. And ‘Pilsner’? Why, it was Bruckner’s favourite beer. Don’t be surprised a few years hence to find another inclusion of this type from Gibbons. If not more Bruckner, then he may well invite Mahler. Meanwhile, in the WSO’s Spring Awakenings concert here on March 8, Bruckner’s 3rd Symphony shares pride of place with Shostakovich’s 1st Cello Concerto (soloist, 2012 BBC Young Musician of the Year, Laura van der Heijden).
The orchestra men were in white tuxedos on Sunday, the women in whatever colour they dared, and one keen-eyed audience member wondered if leader Julian Leaper was playing a new, darker-coloured fiddle. Santa Claus will have needed to have brought that parcel by special recorded delivery. Which member of the Leaper family got up in the middle of the night to sign for that?
No Mozart dances, country or courtly, have made it into the New Year repertoire of his adopted home city but his concertos crop up in Gibbons’ New Year programmes. For his popular Piano Concerto No 20, Assembly Hall debut-making 2014 BBC Musician of the Year, Martin James Bartlett joined a WSO that was slightly Mozart-rusty, though inevitably not at first oboe where London Mozart Players co-principal Christopher O’Neal led the woodwinds.
Bartlett has undergone tons of teaching in his last 10 years at the Royal College Junior Department and the Purcell School. But out if this came a performance that taught us much about this concerto in particular and about listening to Mozart Piano Concertos in general.
Now aged 18, he began learning No 20 (K466) aged 14, interrupting its progress to learn completely No 24 (K491). These are the only two of the 27 Mozart wrote in the minor key, yet they are the first Bartlett has learned. This is highly unusual. He immediately won a competition playing this No 20 in D minor, and on Sunday he trumped most expectations.
Talking with me later, he said: “To listen to Mozart’s Piano Concertos you have to listen to his operas. They are so much better.” This sparks a debate and exposition requiring a whole article. In the room left here I’ll say this, as one who began loving Mozart on hearing K595 (No 27) but arrived at his operas last, via his symphonies (of which a handful are great), his other concertos (at least a dozen of which match his final four symphonies in stature) and wind serenades (three of which are unsurpassed).
Conventional practice leads us to expect pianists to play No 20 with a stormy, stressful opening movement, a high-loft winter-tog slow movement in contrasting welcome relief from the angst (only to be rudely interrupted by a fresh gale of unrest in the middle), then a frowning return to minor-key disquiet in a finale brightening to major in the brief conclusion.
With a lightness of touch and vision, Bartlett brought much more staccato and spring to the first movement, much more interest to an essentially benign Romance (an alternative smile to the central gale), and fun-filled interplay throughout the finale. Being obviously a natural chamber musician makes him a bringer of fresh air to Mozart concertos. We do not underestimate the revelatory powers of pianists wearing heavy-rimmed spectacles. Bartlett may also grow as tall as Alfred Brendel.
In short, rather than needing to love opera, to ‘get’ Mozart’s Piano Concertos in full, you just need to know that great Mozart opera is sharply-observed real life clothed in fantasy for the stage, that almost every tune Mozart tumbled out is singable, and that the conductor Sir Colin Davis declared that Mozart therefore was life.
While listening to Bartlett’s No 20 in D Minor, instead of progressively and routinely picturing troubled Byronic landscapes, then comfy near-sentimentality, then resuming torment with the sky only slowly brightening before some brief, almost illogical jollity at the end, I was led to imagine an operatic scenario of a deepening family problem badly needing addressing; of everybody finally sitting round the table and thrashing out the issue (= the repeated theme); then everybody going out for a celebratory walk together and winding up at the local funfair.
Next concerts at the Assembly Hall:
Saturday afternoon, January 17: Nicola Benedetti (violin) and Alexei Grynyuk (piano) at Assembly Hall. A few tickets left. The replacement concert for celebrity Benedetti’s sudden missed WSO appearance last May. Following Arta Arnicane and Florian Röhn (piano and cello) in April, a taste of the world’s great chamber music. Programme to be announced.
Sunday afternoon, February 15, ‘Romantic Valentines’: WSO, Gibbons ― Tchaikovsky (Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture, Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty. Symphony No 5), William Alwyn (Piano Concerto). Soloist, Rabiga Dyussembayeva. The powerful Khazak replaces fellow Sussex Piano Competition finalist Arta Arnicane who is now Mrs Röhn and infanticipating.