AS the full BBC Symphony Orchestra sat waiting on the stage of The Forum for their conductor Kevin John Edusei and pianist Sir Stephen Hough to join them for the start of the final concert of this year’s Mozart Fest, a near neighbour in the audience turned to their companion and loudly declared “Now that’s what a call a real Big Band”.
There was indeed a full complement of musicians on stage, but any thoughts that they were just going to make a great deal of noise were dispelled long before the first movement of Brahms Piano Concerto No 2 had reached the halfway point. Under the conductors’ watchful eye, the orchestra not only supplied perfect support for the pianist, but, as they have to in this concerto, combined often in equal partnership. There were also some delightful short exchanges between pianist and solo instruments cello and horn.
Not surprisingly, Sir Stephen played with the freedom and ease of someone who had complete faith in the support, and as a result we were treated to a rendition that deserves a repetition of the remarks of an original music critic who described it as “Spring scents, that seemed to blow through the music and bring it to a sunny conclusion”.
After the removal men had received a well-earned round of applause for their efforts in removing the grand piano, the orchestra reassembled and showed their full range in the playing of Dvorak’s Symphony No 9, From the New World. From the rousing melodies driven by the brass section to the painfully nostalgic ‘Goin’ Home’ theme, pursued by horn and oboe soloists, the conductor and orchestra wholeheartedly embraced the mixture of American folk music and the pain of the composer, forever pining for his Czech homeland.
Because it has remained so popular for such a long time, From the New World is sometimes dismissed as a mere ‘pop classic’. When played with the sort of commitment and feeling that Kevin John Edusei and the BBC Symphony brought to this interpretation, that description of the work is completely unjustified, and it provided a fitting finale to the splendid 15 concerts artistic director Amelia Freedman had assembled for the 2022 Bath Mozart fest.
As usual at the festival’s heart is chamber music, and the variety and quality offered by the last four concerts in the Assembly Rooms, before everyone decamped to the Forum for the grand final concert, illustrates why the Mozart Fest has made such a strong recovery from the problems caused by Covid.
The Elias Quartet offered Haydn and Beethoven String quartets to a lunchtime audience, followed in the evening by violinist Alina Ibragimova and the elegantly-attired pianist Samson Tsoy, who moved from the joy of Mozart via complexities of Janacek to intensity of Brahms.
The next day The Cardinall’s Musick provided six pieces by Mendelssohn in a sweeping celebration of his music, before the Pavel Haas Quartet brought proceedings at the Assembly Rooms to a halt, providing a lunchtime sandwich of Prokofiev’s String Quartet No 2 between works by Haydn and Schubert.
Chamber music fans have the Bath Bach Fest, between the 16th and 18th February 2023, to look forward to, before the Mozart Fest returns in November 2023.
WALKING up the hill towards The Circus and on to the Assembly Rooms, where all but two of this year’s Bath Mozart Fest concerts are being presented, you will come across a poster inviting you to visit The House of Frankenstein. Through the character of Victor Frankenstein, author Mary Shelley invented on of the great monsters of literature.
Inside the Assembly Rooms could be found one of the most popular, and regular, visitors to the Mozart Fest, the Nash Ensemble, founded by another lady with remarkable talents – the festival’s Artistic Director Amelia Freedman.
Unlike Mary Shelley, Amelia’s creation did not turn into an enfant terrible, but one of the finest and most respected chamber groups in the country, and, despite having to change two of their usual personnel for this visit, they did not disappoint their many followers. Two Mozart works, the Quintet in E flat major for horn (Richard Watkins), and String Quartet No 5 in D Major, plus Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words for cello (Adrian Brendel) and piano (Alisdair Beatson), acted as curtain raisers for a joyful rendition of Schubert’s The Trout, played with such exuberance that you would swear the players had just discovered it and were playing it for the first time.
Before the Nash arrived, pianist Simoon Trpceski had delighted his audience with a programme that included two Prokofiev pieces, Tales of an Old Grandmother and Piano Sonata No 7 in B flat major. He was followed by the father and daughter team of pianist Jeremy and violinist Jennifer Pike. A delightful performance of Clara Schumann’s Romance for Violin and Piano, and Greig’s Violin Sonata, gave their lunchtime audience a very satisfying musical snack.
The Amatis Trio provided another enjoyable lunchtime treat for early day music lovers, before Roderick Williams (baritone) and Susie Allen (piano) took up the celebratory theme in fine style with A Birthday Celebration for Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the Teyber Trio provided a different musical diversion with works by Kodaly, Intermezzo for String Trio, and Mozart’s Divertimento.
The biggest number of musicians was gathered together so far for this year’s festival for the visit of the London Mozart Players. Under the leadership of violin/conductor Simon Blendis they showed the same wonderfully balanced sound as the smaller groups, and contributed three works composed on the grander scale. Haydn’s Symphony No 55 in E flat, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major, with soloist Michael Collins in show-stopping form, and Mozart’s Symphony No 40 in G minor, which concluded a much appreciated evening in the grand manner.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra which ends the festival at the Forum on Saturday evening, 19th November, will have to be in top form to match and/or better the London Mozart Players contribution to this year’s Bath Mozart Fest.
Since 1991, when through a generous bequest from Mrs Mary Purnell in memory of her late son Mark, who adored the music of Mozart and the City of Bath, the Bath Mozart Fest was launched, it has encountered many challenges that have threatened to lead to its demise.
Receiving no monetary support from any public or charitable or organisations, it has always survived through private, and corporate donations and the money raised at the box office. Despite these problems, exacerbated by the Covid crisis, the Fest has not only survived, but has grown in reputation to become a leading chamber and orchestral classical music festival.
For the first time since Covid raised its ugly head, artistic director Amelia Freedman has been able to arrange a full programme of 15 concerts over a nine-day period from 11th to 19th November, 13 of them in the beautiful Assembly Rooms, one in Bath Abbey and the final concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at The Forum.
The world renowned Takacs Quartet set the Fest off to a flying start, playing Mozart’s String Quartet No 20 in D major, and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, with such perfect timing that you would have thought they were joined together by an invisible umbilical cord.
It was when playing Dvorak’s String Quartet, No 13 in G major, that their joy of playing really communicated itself to the audience. You could easily have equated the quartet to the leading characters in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, Edward Dusinberre, the no nonsense leader as Ratty, Harumi Rhodes, violin, his faithful less assertive follower, Mole, Richard O’Neill, viola, as Toad, with eyes forever searching for new avenues to explore, and Andras Fejer, wise old Badger, peering over his glasses, bringing immense feeling to the slower passages.
In complete contrast the Fest took on a completely different appearance and musical texture as it moved from the intimacy of the Assembly to the grandeur of Bath Abbey. The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra elected for Henry Purcell’s 17th century Welcome Songs and Coronation Music for King James II.
In some ways this presentation of the work, compared to the grandiose setting for its first performance, could almost be described as a chamber version. Not to the extent of the recent production at the Ustinov Studio of Purcell’s Opera Dido and Aeneas, but without the Royal trimmings that go with a Coronation. Under Harry Christophers’ skilfully-used baton, few if any of the sell-out audience in the Abbey allowed their minds to drift onto spectacle as he extracted a finely integrated performance from singers and orchestra.
With ten more chamber concerts to look forward to at the Assembly Rooms before that final full orchestral finale in the Forum, (Brahms Piano Concerto No 2. and Dvorak’s Symphony No 9, From the New World) it really is welcome back in its full glory to the Bath Mozart Fest.