Sunday 7 February 2016

Vilde Frang, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo in Mozart Violin Concertos

Vilde Frang - © Marco Borggreve
Vilde Frang © Marco Borggreve
Mozart Symphony No. 27, Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 5, Haydn Symphony No. 47; Vilde Frang, Jonathan Cohen, Arcangelo; St Johns Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 5 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Elegant and vividly engaging evening of Mozart concertos

Last year Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo recorded a disc of Mozart Violin Concertos with the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang. On Friday 5 February 2016 at St John's Smith Square they gave us the chance to hear Frang in action live when she joined Cohen and his ensemble for a programme which included Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 1 in B flat, K207 and Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, KV219, Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A major K207 and Haydn's Symphony No. 47 in G major, Hob.1:47.

Jonathan Cohen © Pascal Gély
Jonathan Cohen © Pascal Gély
The works in the programme all dated from the early 1770s, years when Mozart was in Salzburg and rather chafing at the restrictions there. In fact his Symphony No. 29 in A major K207 was written in 1774 when he had just returned from Vienna where he had failed to get any sort of alternative permanent appointment. The symphony's scoring, with just strings, two oboes and two horns, fits the forces available from the Salzburg court orchestra and Mozart's violin concertos were probably all written for Antonio Brunetti the leader of the Salzburg orchestra.

The concert began with Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A major a remarkably poised and intimate work, considering it was written for the orchestra of an employer for whom Mozart no longer wanted to work. Arcangelo fielded 20 strings, a group big enough to make a vividly present sound yet small enough it to be clear that each player was important in their own right. They are an engaging and involving group to listen to, and this concert was no different.

The Mozart symphony was as intimate as a chamber piece, the opening Allegro moderato was elegant yet strongly phrased. There was a great contrast of dynamics and attack, something which seemed to fascinate the composer and which Cohen and Arcangelo brought out. Particularly in the development, where there was a great deal going in in the texture the piece, the result was surprisingly dramatic with some elegantly vital playing. The Andante used muted violins and not much woodwind, There was something elegant and dance-like about the music, and an intimate chamber feel which ended with a burst of energy for the closing bars. Menuetto was again full of dynamic contrasts and rhythmic emphasis, with a graceful trio with interesting bulges in the dynamics. The Allegro con spirito finale was certainly that, full of vitality and energy with scurrying strings, lively horns and perky rhythms.

Vilde Frang played both concertos from memory, and in both she combined a sweetly singing, refined, flexible tone with a vital sense of drama. Mozart was interested in the way the violin could sing like the voice, and Frang brought out every inch of the operatic qualities of these works. She is an engaging and vivid performer, whilst never pushing the music out of the envelope. Her Mozart was elegant, poised yet full of drama.

Mozart's Violin concerto no. 1 in B flat dates from 1773 (when he was 17) and it may have been his first original concerto composition, not that it sounds it! The opening Allegro moderato had a large scale feel, bigger boned than the symphony, with some strongly phrased playing from Frang, with the whole having a sense of narrative, and Frang taking in her stride the busier passagework. The Adagio was the most aria like movement, with Frang singing elegantly in dialogue with the rich textures of the orchestra. The Presto finale was busy and spirited, with a sense of inner vitality. Frang's passagework here was wonderfully vivid  and with a great sense of taking the orchestra with her.

Haydn's Symphony No. 47 was written around the same time, in 1772, whilst he was well establish as Kapellmeister to the Esterhazy family. The symphony is full of interesting experiments, with the minuet constructed as a strict palindrome, and the second movement using a melody that can be played reversed. Before the symphony started Cohen and his players demonstrated the minuets palindromic quality to us.

The opening Allegro combined dramatic horns with an intriguing string melody, leading to a movement which mixed insouciance with fascinating textures. Throughout Haydn kept things changing, moving his textures and dynamics about, but there was nothing restless about the performance. The slow movement, Un poco adagio, cantablile used muted strings to create a strongly veiled tone. This delightful movement, clearly enjoyed by Cohen and his players, had melody which wandered interestingly and was full of enjoyable rhythmic figures. The palindromic minuet had a robust elegance, leading to the Finale: Presto assai which was perfectly joyous. Here, Haydn too explored dynamic contrasts, with quieter sections contrasting with vibrantly vigorous ones, and some rather striking harmonies.

Vilde Frang returned to the platform for Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5, his final essay in the genre; after 1775 he never returned to the violin concerto. The Allegro aperto opened with a crisp rising figure which certainly generated interest and excitement, but the first solo entry was surprisingly more lyrically relaxed before launching into brilliant vigour. The sense of drama here came partly from the way Frang interacted with the orchestra. This combination of elements made the performance highly appealing, and Frang crowned things with a substantial and imaginative cadenza. The Adagio was an elegantly sung poignant aria. Quite a complex piece, with an array of emotions, and Frang gave a deeply felt performance. the finale, Rondeau: Tempo di Menuetto was quite steady but with great pointed rhythms with dancing elegance. The rondo form meant that we had some contrasting episodes, from the darkly dramatic to something almost Hungarian.

This was stylish and engaging evening. Under Cohen's relaxed, amiable yet acute direction, all performers seemed vividly involved and were clearly enjoying themselves. Frang is a highly engaging performer who clearly has developed a lovely rapport with the ensemble and it was this which gave the evening its particular qualities.

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