Manchester Camerata’s series of Mozart concertos, an ongoing theme in their 40th anniversary season, came to a close with pianist Ferenc Rados joining fellow Hungarian Gábor Takács-Nagy for a superb account of the Piano Concerto no. 15 at the Royal Northern College of Music.
The broader theme of the evening, though, was movement, and two modern works began proceedings to fascinating effect. The first was Alfred Schnittke’s 1977 Moz-Art à la Haydn, in which the musicians slowly come on stage, whilst playing. This neatly mirrored Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, which later closed the concert. At the outset, the high harmonics from the single double bass were given thoroughly ethereal treatment, soft and silvery in the darkened hall. The drama was well carried off, with the lights slowly coming up as the players quietly drifted onto the stage. The central passage, inspired by discovered fragments of a 1783 Mozart pantomime, was accompanied by a sudden brightening in tone and light. At the front the two soloists, the leaders of the first and second violins, played with gusto in intensely animated conversation with each other. The music finished in darkness, making for a visually and musically fascinating start to the programme.
Further movement, this time in far quicker, more direct lines, formed the basis of Leo Geyer’s Moving Figure, a work inspired by Rachel Pank’s life drawing of the same title. The artwork consists of bold and narrow lines and shadowy colours forming loose outlines of two figures. Geyer, a third-year undergraduate at the RNCM and Manchester University, used this to create a short work for a quartet of horn, bassoon, viola and cello. Particularly fascinating in this première of the piece were the subtle variations created within musical lines. At the extremes of their pitch ranges the viola and cello, and separately the horn and bassoon, take on similar timbres to their partner within the quartet. This allowed for subtle changes in direction within lines, without disrupting the greater structure. The quartet managed this admirably, handing each other melodies carefully whilst successfully navigating the required choreography. Another interesting feature was the mid-line fluctuation in hand-stopping in the horn. Geyer cut a relaxed figure during the performance and seemed delighted with it afterwards, as did an appreciative audience.
Mozart’s Fifteenth Piano Concerto, one of six composed for Vienna in 1784, was given a very elegant reading. The concerto begins with the woodwinds giving a rising chromatic figure, with crisp articulation in the oboes adding to the playfulness. The strings, playing with reasonably full sections (including five cellos), were very flexible in attending to full-bodied tutti passages and clean runs of semiquavers. Blending between piano and orchestra was excellent throughout, but in the second movement in particular the combination of soft woodwind legato below busy themes in the piano was beautifully carried off. Ferenc Rados, a former teacher of Takács-Nagy, played as unfussily and without ego his programme note (he declined the “pseudo-glamour” of a biography; Steven Isserlis provided a glowing tribute instead). For all the sparkle of the third movement, Rados seemed to find moments here to reflect on the softer material of the first and second movements, making for a very coherent and highly refined performance.
The second half of the concert began with a deeply moving account of Rudolf Barshai’s authorised orchestration of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. With a dedication to the victims of fascism, and potentially inspired by a 1960 visit to the remains of post-war Dresden, the intensity of the music comes as little surprise. It was more of a revelation to hear a work of such large subject matter played in a venue as intimate as the RNCM concert hall. The music felt uncomfortably close – but why should this music be comfortable? The ferocious intensity of the string orchestra, particularly in the Allegro molto second movement, was relentless. Leader Giovanni Guzzo was key to this. He seemed to have little need for a chair, such was his energy, and it carried the orchestra through some very memorable playing. The most affecting moment, though, was his long-sustained, almost nonchalant note, held while all others around him hammered out violent chords.
After the Shostakovich, Haydn’s Farewell Symphony was an excellent digestif, freshening the atmosphere but not allowing what had preceded to be forgotten. Prince Esterházy’s malcontent court musicians at Eisenstadt, longing to see their families, inspired Haydn to pen a musical protest, in which all but two violinists leave the stage during the finale. The crisp, taut sound from earlier in the evening was carried forward into an energetically stormy first movement and stately second, but hint of sadness were evident too pointing ahead to the finale. Here, after a brief Presto, the orchestra slowly wandered off stage as the lights dimmed again, leaving just the beautifully mournful playing of the violin duo.
A very warm reception followed, closing a fascinating and coherent programme. I was surprised to realise that the concert had finished just after 10pm: though it turned out to be a long programme, concentration around the hall had not wavered, a reflection on the excellent playing on stage.