Mozart and Tchaikovsky at the Barbican Back

It seemed an unlikely pairing. On 7 December 2017, the London Symphony Orchestra put on its third and final concert in the Mozart and Tchaikovsky series which has been led by conductor and solo violinist Nikolaj Znaider since its inauguration last December. The final performance began with a pared-down chamber orchestra performing two of Mozart’s violin concertos – light, precise and polite, full of good tunes but not tugging too much at the heart strings. They could be described as apprentice pieces by a prodigiously talented youth, full of hope and promise. Now, after the interval, it was time for something completely different. The platform could barely contain all the woodwind, tympani and cymbals, brass of every shape and calibre and we were almost literally blown away by Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, the Pathétique.

Some explanation for this conjunction was needed, and Znaider offered one at the outset. The concert was a culmination of the orchestra’s project, begun under former conductor in chief Sir Colin Davis, to record key works on its own budget LSO Live label. These two violin concertos were to complete the recordings of the five composed by Mozart.

Mozart was quite young when he wrote his violin concertos, all five between April and December of 1775, not dissimilar to John Keats who would later write his six great odes in quick succession between April and September of 1819. Mozart wrote the concertos while engaged as concertmaster of the Archbishop’s court orchestra in Salzburg. He was less fond of Salzburg than the city has subsequently become of him. ‘There is nothing going on, musically; there is no theatre, no opera!’ he wrote to a friend. However, that ennui seems to have given him time to develop his music. The concertos show the rapid and prodigious development of his style and capabilities in this period.

In contrast, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique would be his last major work, as the composer himself conducted its premiere nine days before his death.  No emotion is understated; the noise and clamour are enough to keep the dreamiest romantic awake. In stark contrast to the Mozart, the piece appears a poignant retrospective on an angst- laden life. The programme reveals Tchaikovsky’s feelings toward Mozart:

To say that Tchaikovsky revered Mozart would be quite an understatement; ‘I love Mozart like a musical Christ’, he once wrote. While he respected Beethoven but only sometimes warmed to him, considered Bach and Handel restricted by their times, and found Haydn ‘slight and superficial’, it was Mozart among the great figures of musical history who overwhelmed him. ‘Mozart was a being so angelic, of such child-like purity, his music is so full of unapproachable, divine beauty, that if anyone may be named alongside Christ, then it is he’ (Kemp, 3).

This devotion sprang from the ease with which Mozart composed in comparison to the duality that Tchaikovsky struggled with, between European music and the folk, or Slavic music of Russian tradition.

For the Mozart, the LSO was appropriately reduced to a chamber orchestra. The string players stood as they would have done in Mozart’s day while Nicolaj Znaider was both soloist and conductor, again in the style of the period. He delivered a beautifully phrased performance which brought alive the conversation between the soloist and the sections of the orchestra. Never straining for effect, the orchestra provided sensitive accompaniment and some lovely pianissimo sound.

We heard first Concerto No 2 (K.211) in which the composer is still borrowing heavily from the past. It felt sprightly and dance-like, in the way good baroque music can, but there was little to mark it as distinctively Mozartian. By contrast in Concerto No.3 (K.216) we began to hear the phrasing and mannerisms of the mature composer. The way the solo violin carries its expansive themes above some sparely scored accompaniment clearly prefigures the great operatic aria writing that was to come. Mozart wrote no more violin concertos after 1775, but these gave us a fascinating glimpse of a moment in the development of a supreme musical talent.

These two composers were born into different musical worlds and this can be seen through the grace and smartness of Mozart in comparison with the deep and sweeping drama of Tchaikovsky. The connection between these two artists is deeply explored through the themes of each work, with fate as a coinciding presentiment, an intuitive feeling for the future as one man’s career begins and another’s ends. Znaider describes this uniting force in their music as “a feeling of drama, of a story unfolding.” All in all, it was a very enjoyable and instructive evening for an almost capacity audience.

Works Cited:

Kemp, Lindsay, Always Moving, London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican, 2017.

The London Symphony Orchestra performed with Nikolaj Znaider at the Barbican, London on 7 December 2017.