Saturday 19 October 2013

Viktoria Mullova, Ottavio Dantone and Accademia Bizantina in Bach

Viktoria Mullova
Viktoria Mullova recently released a disc of Bach violin concertos with Ottavio Dantone and Accademia Bizantina (see my review), and now she and the group brought a programme of four Bach concertos to the Wigmore Hall. On Friday 18 October Viktoria Mullova was the soloist, accompanied by Accademia Bizantina directed from the harpsichord by Ottavio Dantone, in Bach's Concerto in A minor for vioolin BWV1041 and Concerto in D for violin BWV1042, plus two of Dantone's transcriptions Concerto in C minor for violin and harpsichord (transcription of BWV1060) and Concerto in D for violin (transcription of BWV1053). A packed Wigmore Hall audience were all very eager to hear Mullova's particular clean-limbed Bach in live performance.

These were small scale performances, with a total of seven performers in all, just Mullova plus single violins, viola, cello and double bass with Dantone on harpsichord. But Mullova was very much part of the ensemble, these were performances notable for the collegiality with Mullova primus inter pares. All played standing, with Mullova playing in the tuttis and leading the players by example.

The group opened with Bach's Concerto in A minor for violin BWV1041, one of the two concertos for the instrument surviving in its original version. Bach's concerto probably dates from his years at the Cothen court (1717 to 1723) with the concertos of Vivaldi as exemplars.

Mullova played with clear, sweet tone and lovely clean lines with the opening Allegro taken at quite a steady space, and a light touch in the bass. For the Andante we had quite a strong bass in the accompaniment and, for my taste, not enough harpsichord.  But Mullova gave us a beautifully expressive solo with a superb sense of line. The concluding Allegro assai had a lovely dancey feel to it, with a nice crisp bounce in the accompaniment. Mullova's solo line was beautifully fluent with finely graded passage-work. There is a wiry strength to her playing with a focussed intensity to it which is impressive.

Bach wrote far more concertos than survive in their original versions. He re-purposed many of his Cothen concertos as harpsichord concerts when he was director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum and it is these harpsichord versions which survive to tantalise musicologists. The concerto for two harpsichords BWV1060 has its origins in a two instrument concerto which, since 1924, has been reconstructed as a concerto for violin and oboe. But Dantone feels that the concerto makes more sense as a concerto for harpsichord and violin (the violin playing the solo line commonly given to the oboe). This makes a lot of sense but on Mullova and Dantone's recording of the work I found the balance between the two solo instruments unconvincing.

In live performance, sitting at the back of the Wigmore Hall, Mullova's sweet toned solo in the work's opening Allegro was just not balanced by Dantone's solo line. The harpsichord was simply not as strong and the concerto felt more like a solo concerto with a rather busy harpsichord continuo. Clearly this isn't an accident and the group intends the work to sound like this, but I felt Mullova sounded over spotlit and Dantone's fine harpsichord playing did not carry well enough. For the second movement, Largo ovvero Adagio, the balance between the two instruments in the solo passages (with the very discreet accompaniment) was better.  Mullova still seemed the dominant partner, providing a nicely fleet account of the solo with lovely flowing feel.The concluding Allegro was brisk and crisp, with Dantone taking the movement at quite a brisk pace. Despite the pace, the busy passages were admirably tidy and the movement went with a nice bounce.

After the interval we had another of Dantone's transcriptions, this time the harpsichord concerto BWV1053. This is often been re-constructed as an oboe concerto and as an oboe d'amore concerto, but Bach re-used the material in three movements from cantatas, and using these as inspiration Dantone has reconstructed the work as Concerto in D for violin. The opening Allegro started with the violin playing unaccompanied, which was inspired by the cantata version of the material, an interesting but slightly unconvincing idea in the context of a concerto. Mullova gave us lovely even passage-work. There was something very clean-limbed about her approach to Bach with a clean even sound. She takes a very balanced view of the music, not too intense, but very poised and elegant. The middle Siciliano movement went with a gentle lilt, the solo line sounding almost, but not quite, like a number of other Bach slow movements.  The Allegro finale was brisk with a Vivaldi-like infectiousness. The solo part was full of notes, played fluently by Mullova and she achieve a nice emphasis and conviction in the performance. Some details of the solo line sounded unconvincing to my ear, Dantone having had to select notes from the original very busy harpsichord part.

The evening finished with Bach's Concerto in E for violin BWV1042. The Allegro was crisply incisive with a nice sense of freedom in the solo line, and a good even tone throughout. Mullova's thankfully playing lacks the bulges beloved of some historically informed performance. The Adagio was taken at quite a fleet tempo, it didn't seem rushed but nor did the performance hang around. Mullova played with a beautifully slim tone, giving a nice fluidity to the florid passages. The concerto finished with a nicely incisive account of the Allegro assai.

The performances had a nice balance between a full romantic intensity which is inauthentic but stirring and the sort of authentic performance which seems almost perfunctory. It was quite a feat for Mullova playing four concertos in an evening and I would not have wanted to deprive people of the chance to hear her in full flow but frankly a little variety in texture in the concert might have been beneficial.

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