Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra | Heavenly Mozart
CD Released November 10, 2023
The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra’s Heavenly Mozart recording features two of Mozart’s supremely popular orchestral pieces – his Piano Concerto in A major no. 23 and the outstanding Symphony in C major no. 41. Taking an historically informed approach to performance, the orchestra purposes to cast refreshing light on the music, and bring the listener close to how it might have been heard in Mozart’s day. The use of original instruments of the period as well as modern copies ideally contributes to recapturing those sounds. In addition, playing techniques of the time derived from archival research are rewardingly employed on this disc.
The product is a triumph of academic and artistic expertise…
…including highly informative notes written by Neal Peres Da Costa, soloist in the piano concerto. This is essential reading for greater understanding of the inspiration behind the recording. Additionally, the booklet provides notes on the music, and details of each player’s instrument. Peres Da Costa performs on a Viennese fortepiano after Anton Walter & Sohn, (c.1805) made by Paul McNulty (2022), and provided courtesy of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
A gorgeously luminous sonority of fortepiano, strings and mellow wind form the introduction to Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23, directed from the violin by Rachael Beesley with a well-judged and poised Allegro tempo. Musical devices such as delicate yielding to nuanced fluctuation, agogic accent and messa di voce convey a movement of irresistibly engaging character. Bassoons and horns are commendably balanced, and the music’s inexorable and warmly lyrical flow absolutely shines radiance and cheerful content. At the appearance of the fortepiano – to be admired for the richness of its lower tones, and resonant ring of the higher register – we hear generous instances of manual asynchrony (where left and right hands are deliberately independent), spread chords, and added ornamentation. Peres Da Costa scampers the length of the keyboard in a formidable display of dextrous, expert musicianship, and his flexible approach carries through in (Mozart’s) cadenza.
He then charms with an interlude lead-in to the second movement (Adagio in Mozart’s score) which initiates an unexpected turn of events: as reasoned by Peres Da Costa, he incorporates elements of Carl Reinecke’s Andante arrangement for solo piano (1896) and his style of playing, as heard on piano roll from c.1904, as well as employing florid ornamentation ascribed to Barbara Ployer, a pupil of Mozart (and some of his own). Early acoustic and piano roll recordings such as those of 19th-century German pianist and Mozart exponent Carl Reinecke (a preserver of performance traditions) are startlingly enlightening in their exposition of the expressive employment of arpeggiation, agogic accentuation, rhythm and tempo flexibility, and ornamentation with respect to interpretations of 18th-century music.
Such attention to performing practice aspects from the Classical era and beyond gives rise to a highly impassioned rendering which throws the varying distinctive temperaments of the music into sharp relief.
The performance takes on a freer, non-literal pliability, with asynchronicity again a noticeable perspective. In a movement of touching sadness, the passages for fortepiano alone impart a sense of desolation. The fortepiano’s expressive vocal embellishment and nuanced tonal lingerings, alongside wind interspersions (that heart-melting bassoon) are sublimely poignant. This will make you cry. (Listen to it here: YouTube: Mozart Piano Concerto No.23, K.488, 2nd movement.)
A sound tempo is chosen for the Allegro assai where again, attention focuses substantially on bringing out musical character with expressive phrasing and gesture. Fortepiano solos are sensitively delicate or resoundingly powerful, and communication between the instrumentalists is palpable. The musicians of the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra play with admirable zest and cohesion for an exciting and highly intelligible performance, with Peres Da Costa at the fortepiano one of the most outstanding features.
The Allegro vivace of Mozart’s final and longest Symphony in C major no. 41 (the ‘Jupiter’) offers a positive diversity of dramatic, sensitive moods and fascinating changes of texture, with the musicians, conducted by Beesley, responsive to the music’s theatrical orientation, imbuing spirit, elegance and the martial. Opening with tautly measured gravitas and subtle keyboard participation, violins and bassoon elicit wistfulness to their theme, while wind contributions feature incisively articulate oboes. A passage featuring a form of feathery bow stroke by the violins offers intriguing aural stimulation. An attractive ebb and flow of tempo is a natural response to the music’s temperament, while due consideration is given to the movement’s dramatic designs with weighty pauses, boldly wielded contrasts of dynamic, and startling changes of key powerfully delivered. Brass and timpani punctuations and harmony points are impressively grand and resolute. Bassoons are exquisitely warm-toned, and the spread chords and extra colour which emanate from the fortepiano are an agreeable attribute (an out-of-the-ordinary inclusion even for a period instrument performance). An exhilarating dovetailing of phrase and motif lead to an especially enthusiastic ending.
Violins begin a songful Andante cantabile – a movement of tender melody, intense contrasts, and pathetic, stirring emotion – with beautifully delicate touch.
Once again the fortepiano delights as a modest and honey-toned complement. Lyrical strings, mellifluous flute, carefree oboes, and marvellously expressive bassoons all sharpen the colour. Horns provide wonderful clarity with their penetrating and persistently repeated pedals and arpeggios. A particularly affecting lamenting quality is emitted by the little portamenti and inflections in the 1st violins. As the softened tranquillity moves to a more unsettled intensity, violins impart a pleading urgency with their syncopations and restive undulations, while the winds are fiercely dissonant on fortepiano chords, all wonderful gestures with which the orchestra most effectively evinces impassioned utterance.
Courtly elegance is at variance with boisterous interruptions for the pacey Menuetto, its winding chromatic descents bearing an enjoyable (Austrian) jaunty swing. An overtly cheeky Trio features impish flute and oboe – I loved the mischievous flute ornaments – while brass and timpani add moments of ceremonial pomp. Finally, the molto allegro, an exhilarating movement of daring ingenuity, long famous for its contrapuntal density, is performed with anticipated flair and finesse. A spectacular host of tunes and countermelodies in diversified fugal interaction inspired by the four-note theme are suberbly balanced for all the scurrying and tightly packed concentration of ideas. Highlights include exciting contrasts in volume and climax, impressively agile bassi, expressive flute, delightful slides and sinuous chromaticism in the upper strings as well as crisply incisive brass and timps as the music propels to a stunningly collaborative and memorable conclusion.
The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra successfully brings off the vision as described by Beesley: ‘By manifesting expressive and embodied gestures through the manipulation of the notation to create … theatrical characters, as envisaged by Mozart in his opera finales…’ In the fourth movement, all characters are ‘…on stage… where five motivic themes boisterously vie for attention. Only in the final moments do they come together to rejoice’.
This is not just another Mozart CD
‘Heavenly’ is a title well-merited, and I encourage listening with good quality equipment and scores to hand for an enhanced experience. The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra’s considered analysis of Mozart’s scores and detailed attention to late C18th playing techniques results in bold, enterprising and singularly meaningful readings, encapsulating the music’s power, spirit, refinement and sheer beauty. The collective playing is a revelation, exhibiting exemplary ensemble and ravishing sonorities, capturing the essence of Mozart’s intentions most convincingly. Performances such as these put Australia at the very forefront of the HIP movement.
Produced and engineered by Thomas Grubb with Patrick Mullins assistant engineer in the somewhat ungiving acoustic of All Saints Church, Hunters Hill, Sydney, which nonetheless imparts something of the type of C18th European theatre or concert room where the pieces may have been performed with relatively small orchestral forces.
Available through ABC Classic (digital/streaming) and the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra label (physical CD @ $25)