Wolfgang Amadé Mozart will always be an enduring cultural icon; from his famed and prodigious childhood to his unfortunate early death (the similarly enduring subject of much academic hagiography, it should be noted), his music will forever remain a permanent fixture of the classical performance canon for its poignancy, accessibility, and not least of all, his cultural status.
This concert at the Barbican paid tribute to the composer by presenting an all-Mozart program, signaling perhaps a vain effort to fill the hall's seats in what was, unfortunately, not quite as masterful a concert as either the Barbican's or the performers' reputations suggested it might be.
David Temple conducted both the Crouch End Festival Chorus and the London Orchestra da Camera rather exuberantly throughout the evening, successfully presenting the historically varied program with expert attention to the musical details that differentiate Viennese Classicism from the rest of the classical canon. One cannot fault him for the sumptuous and equally creative phrasing, sharp dynamic contrasts, and—at times—magnificent lyricism he elicited from his soloists and both ensembles. Of course, the supposed musical hegemony conductors wield over their players is never quite total, and inevitably some important details, pitch accuracy and cohesive choral blend, for instance, fell through the cracks.
Indeed, the Festival Chorus works together as an ensemble incredibly well, but lacks the polish of a choir that is expertly blended (and well balanced with the orchestra), a most surprising feature, especially considering the ensemble's accolades. It wasn't until Mozart's Requiem (the final piece on the program), that both orchestra and choir seemed to arrive at that important synergy so vital to successful performances. Even then, some inconsistencies were glaringly obvious: the tenors continued to sing with spread vowels, the sopranos were painfully girlish-sounding and bright, and beginning and ending consonants (across all the sections) were heard at different times all over the stage, save a few precious moments. The altos, however, produced a warm and focused sound, redeeming the Kyrie's double fugue brilliantly. The basses were quite strong, albeit succumbing to what sounded as overenthusiastic shouting at times, especially in the Tuba Mirum.
Moving backwards through the program, the Ave Verum Corpus was, literally, breathtaking; it was during this all-too-short piece that one glimpsed what the combined ensembles were truly capable of: stunning lyricism, a mature and well-blended sound, beautiful phrasing, and dynamics that successfully produced many a tear. It was both a heartfelt and memorable performance. Similarly, the orchestra's performance of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was surprisingly fresh: the fourth movement was particularly crisp, as the articulation of melismas emerging from the overall texture produced a striking effect, breathing new life, for me, into this clichéd piece.
Reputation, as I hinted earlier, however, seemed to be at odds with performance in every aspect of this concert, and the soloists were no exception. All four of them are clearly capable of producing pleasing sounds; one simply wishes that they'd done this more consistently. Ashley Riches, with his powerful yet silky bass, was the only soloist that seemed truly engaged for the duration of the concert; Katherine Watson's breath in the middle of a word during the Laudate Dominum of the Vespers suggested that she was singing this concert from a perfunctory distance, and Robert Murray, when he could be heard, brought only utilitarian presence to his important phrases. Luckily, Jennifer Johnston was not only enthusiastic, with her sensationally fluid legato, but also strikingly emotive, rescuing the quartet often.
The perplexing inconsistency in this concert was quite frustrating; giving Mr. Temple the benefit of the doubt leads one to believe that perhaps external constraints negatively affected the rehearsals in some way. Regardless, Mozart remains on his masterful laurels, and the Barbican hopes, undoubtedly, for better returns in the future.
Photo: Ashley Riches (© Debbie Scanlon & Ben Cole)