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Notes from the 2014 Salzburg Festival ( 8 )
Camerata Salzburg • Thomas Zehetmair

Camerata Salzburg • Thomas Zehetmair

Genial Mozart and Casken Double Concerto

As I wrote about a Mozart-Matinee with Ingo Metzmacher from last year’s Salzburg Festival, “Mozart Serenades are all-in-one concerts: A march to open with, a symphony (the opening and three closing movements)… and a veritable violin concerto in between (movements 2-4).” That was meant to describe the Serenade No.5 in D, K.204, but it fits just as well to Mozart’s “Haffner-Serenade”*.

Mozart’s Serenades are really less suited to sitting quietly on chairs in a concert hall, and much more so for imbibing a good one or two of something zesty, while sitting on a bench, outside, or strolling in a moonlit garden. Those were the occasions the Serenades were composed for (in this case the wedding festivities of the sister of Sigmund Haffners Jr.), not for reverent and hushed straining of the ears in the Mozarteum’s Great Hall on Wednesday evening, August 6th. Happily, instead of turning into an elaborate tedium of prettiness, and even with everyone but conductor/violinist Thomas Zehetmair sitting down, it ended up a stand-up affair!

It was swift and spirited and simply very well played… The whole string section of the Camerata Salzburg was particularly fine: Together and on-the-front-of-the-foot phrasing. Notable, too, the rhythmic figures of the second violins in the first movement, the coy double bass playing, the oboe in the second Andante, the natural trumpets and flutes in the third Menuetto… Good stuff, all. Zehetmair’s playing in the quasi-violin-concerto was pointed, spot-on (mostly), and smile-inducing. If it felt a little forced, a little tight at times, it didn’t hurt the very fine overall impression in the least. Richard Bratby closes his program essay with a brilliant phrase, accusing the Haffner Serenade of being “infinitely better than it has any need to be”. And, must be added, sounding, on this occasion, very much shorter than it is!

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W.A.Mozart, "Haffner" Serenade
S.Vegh / Camerata Salzburg
Felix Mendelssohn-B.’s Melusine Overture, which opened the concert, is of the expected Mendelssohnian lovliness. It’s not a tone-poem quite yet, but not a full step away from it either, with its depiction of the name-giving mermaid and her lover-knight: Melusine—a close relative of her lady-fish colleagues Undine and Rusalka—is depicted with a wave of a musical figure (a little like what Wagner would later use in Rheingold, as Dirk Möller points out in the program notes—though not nearly as direct and explicit as the ‘stormy sea’ theme that Wagner pilfered from the Scottish Symphony for his Flying Dutchman overture), him with a robust, strident theme. The Camerata under Zehetmair—not the most natural looking conductor, but effective!—veered beautifully between the lyrical and the abrasive, the outbreaks and the calm. Mendelssohn was given a bit of grit in the process, which becomes the composer very well, indeed.

The unsuspected surprise was the double concerto of a certain John Casken. The two movement violin-viola concert That Subtle Knot got its Austrian premiere by Zehetmair and his wife Ruth Killius (who gave the world premiere just a few months ago at Gateshead) and it is an unequivocally splendid work, with superb music. The beginning is particularly effective: the solo viola, soon and seamlessly followed by the violin, works along in quiet, small intervals that slowly connect to larger, more elaborate structures. Stealthily, one instrument group after another joins in—so subtly that one misses it at first and simply wonders what amazing tonal quality the violin and viola have taken on… only to realize that the clarinets have been playing for ten bars, already. Again the Camerata was in exceedingly fine form and followed Zehetmair willingly, perhaps to some degree even enthusiastically.

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J.Casken, Cello Concerto et al.
H.Schiff / J.Casken
Throughout the first movement, the elegiac beginnings are occasionally left behind, but mostly the viola and violin continue to work very much close together, opening and finishing phrases for each other—not unlike a long time married couple. (Or, as the program notes divulge: like a couple in love on a river bank.) The second movement is more animated, a little wilder, which is necessary, too, after the longish and subdued beauty of the first movement. There is more heat and tension now, in the couple’s relationship, plenty wind and brass chatter and the occasional timpani fireworks before the ethereal end returns to quieter tones. Perhaps a few longueurs, in there, but first and only listening suggests that the work has every ingredient to make it a violin-viola concerto staple.**

A little encore just for violin and viola came from Peter Maxwell Davis in form of his “Midhouse Air”, composed for a wedding, nice enough not to scare any unsuspecting wedding guests and their aunts, and with an unsubtle Scottish lilt that is quite catchy and made the audience chuckle in appreciation.

* Mozart had the habit of turning Serenades into Symphonies. The “Haffner” Symphony was thus created—but not from the Haffner Serenade, as one might surmise (though it, too, was turned into a Symphony—the latter simply being called “Symphony in D, after Serenade D.250”) but a work that seems never to have been given its own K-number.

** How much is there, anyway, for violin, viola, and orchestra? Mozart, of course. Alexander Tchaikovsky. Krzysztof Penderecki. And, although only for one soloist, Giya Kancheli.