The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, one of Germany’s top chamber music ensembles, came to the Sheldonian on Friday. Director Gottfried von der Goltz told the Daily Info they were on a mini-tour taking in Bath and the Wigmore Hall before flying home for a recording session the next day. The programme had been chosen in conjunction with the record company: all 5 pieces written by Mozart before he was 26, and all refreshingly lesser-known works from the corpus.
Mozart would have rubbed his hands in joy since all was about period authenticity: the only elements missing were periwigs and knee-breeches. Maestro Von Der Goltz eschewed the baton in favour of leading from 1st violin. The players – save the two cellos – played standing up in contemporary style. The pianoforte was ditched and replaced by a fortepiano which for the whole of the 2nd half maintained a basso continuo. Many of the instruments were of period, e.g. the one of two horn players told me his horn dated from 1820 and came out of an antique shop in Munich; it might have elicited nods of recognition from the postillion on the Oxford to London stagecoach. And Mozart would have approved, too, at the sense of pleasure in the music communicated by the players. No notes from the musical treadmill here, but rather smiling faces and even exuberance.
The Serenata Notturna (K239), like others of Mozart’s serenades, was composed for performance in Salzburg, probably with long pauses between movements. The musicians would assemble at dusk, process to the Archbishop’s Mirabell Palace (the opening movement is actually a march), play, return across the Salzach Bridge and play a second time for the professors and students of the university. Appropriate music, therefore, for the Sheldonian and played with gusto, notably by the timpanist who abandoned his sticks at one point, grabbed the tympanum from its stand and tapped out a rhythm with his palms.
The Bassoon Concerto (K191), Mozart’s only concerto for the instrument, is the most commonly requested piece in orchestral auditions, so almost every pro-bassoonist would have studied it before ever playing it in public. It’s a tough piece, requiring dexterity and puff a-plenty - indeed lungs of iron - from soloist Javier Zafra during the cadenzas. He was damson-faced long before the end. The 1st movement highlights the bassoon’s agility in respect of trill and leap, punctuated by the odd note that needs to appear to come from the basement of the building.
Symphony 33 (K319) is much less heard than its companion piece, the Haffner. The orchestra’s brisk and bracing reading played the outer movements and scherzo with a stimulating sparkle and vigour, while the andante flowed along with a graceful lightness, though always kept on the move.
Earlier Piano Concerto 12 (K414) was played by S. African Kristian Bezuidenhout on his own rinky-dink fortepiano with its low string tensions (the only piano that Mozart ever owned was a fortepiano made in the early 1780s). These instruments bridging the gap between harpsichord and pianoforte would have been played in Oxford from c. 1775, and here in front of us in the well of the Sheldonian, 240 years on, was a modern copy. I’m not a fan of the instrument except perhaps in an intimate drawing-room setting. Here in the lofty space of the Sheldonian the solo instrument struggled at times to make headway against the 15-strong ensemble – despite its modest numbers and tactful sound levels. The full poignancy of the Andante was missing, especially in respect of the bottom of the left-hand range which necessarily sounded very harpsichord-like