"Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?" marvelled Robert Browning. Birmingham audiences enjoyed several opportunities to witness Howard Shelley as both pianist and conductor in a weekend of concerts entitled Mozart-Haydn: Three Glorious Years. The view was anything but plain, however, as a large reflecting sheet of transparent acrylic on a metal frame bestrode the stage like a giant dressing-room mirror. We were reassured that it was for acoustic purposes, to focus the desired pure, bell-like sound required for Mozart piano writing, rather than to assist Shelley in combing his hair between movements. Aesthetically, it left something to be desired, but it was an acoustic success, allowing the soloist to dispense with a piano lid and directing sweet, tight Mozartian sonorities into the hall.
Unsightly technology aside, the weekend offered a spectacle of unalloyed joy. The period 1784 to 1786 was seminal for the development of the symphony and the piano concerto by Haydn and Mozart respectively. The concerts explored in some depth the great achievements of both during those prodigiously busy years.
Three of Haydn's Paris symphonies made vigorous and tirelessly inventive concert openers. The performances emphasised bold contrasts of mood and dynamics – repeated dotted quavers in the Hen Symphony's andante were reduced to a mere whisper before fortissimo outbursts of cogent intensity. The best was saved for the final concert: No 86 received a vital, spirited reading, instinct with humanity, especially in the otherworldly capriccio.
Beautifully balanced accounts of Mozart's Piano Concertos 19 to 24, with Shelley directing from the keyboard, savoured their unsurpassed variety of mood and profusion of melody. A dynamic reading of the D minor K466 captured perfectly the passions seething under the surface of the opening allegro. The sublime Concerto in C K467, was crowned by the painfully beautiful central andante – poised, with enough momentum to avoid an overly romantic effect, it held the audience spellbound. The intimate K488 and symphonic K491 formed a natural culmination of achievement for both composer and interpreters – the rapturous applause at the end of the mighty C minor concerto's titanic concluding variations was fully merited.
Two afternoon chamber concerts made a attractive bonus. Shelley joined orchestra members in works composed within the "three glorious years". The drama of the G minor Piano Quartet's allegro first movement was curtailed when one of the violinist's strings suddenly slackened. As he remarked, we did get a chance to hear the opening section again, even if it was at the expense of a full exposition repeat. The affable E flat Piano Quartet exuded serenity after K478's complex brooding. A sunny, ingratiating performance of the "Kegellstadt" Trio preceded the exquisite perfection of the Piano Quintet K452, in which the principal oboe and bassoon, source of many delightful solos in the orchestral works, were a particular pleasure.
The communal spirit of chamber writing informed the entire weekend. The Salzburg Camerata revelled in such prime repertoire, their conspiratorial smiles and glances humanising Haydn's wit and complementing Moz-art's melodic fecundity. Shelley was the unfailing focus of the weekend's success. Whether tapping into the joy, grandeur and pain in Mozart's solo writing, sharing insights during the pre-concert talks, relishing the camaraderie of the chamber music, or guiding the orchestra with an encouraging gesture, his was an unflappable, benign omnipresence.
Haydn wrote three other Paris symphonies between 1784 and 1786. Mozart's Piano Concertos 14 to 19 also date from that period. I look forward to hearing Shelley and the Salzburg players in Mozart-Haydn: Three Glorious Years – the Prequel.Reuse content