Sunday, March 12, 2006

Haydn and Mozart



At Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony presented a delightful half-Haydn, half-Mozart concert all week long that was being conducted by a Viennese early music specialist, Martin Haselbock.



My friend Kimo and I checked out the last performance on Saturday the 12th.



As much as I adore Haydn's music, it has never sounded all that great in the concert hall to me, possibly because the venues are too large.



Even with the wonderful soprano Christine Brandes singing a concert aria and the stupendous Symphony Chorus essaying a short piece about "The Storm," the first half was a trifle dull.



Part of the problem became clear in the second half when the program was devoted to an early mass by Mozart, the "Coronation," and Haydn's classical style was suddenly infused with Mozart's particular genius. You could feel every ear in the hall perk up.



The greatest writer about Mozart was probably George Bernard Shaw, who started his career as a classical music critic for a number of London newspapers. Here are a few choice remarks from GBS, who was writing during the centenary of Mozart's death (this year the world is celebrating the 250th anniversary of his birth):
"Mozart came at the end of a development, not at the beginning of one; and although there are operas and symphonies, and even pianoforte sonatas and pages of instrumental scoring of his, on which you can put your finger and say "Here is final perfection in this manner; and nobody, whatever his genius may be, will ever get a step further on these lines," you cannot say "Here is an entirely new vein of musical art, of which nobody ever dreamt before Mozart." Haydn, who made the mould for Mozart's symphonies, was proud of Mozart's genius because he felt his own part in it: he would have written the E flat symphony if he could, and though he could not, was at least able to feel that the man who had reached that pre-eminence was standing on his old shoulder."


"The people most to be pitied at this moment are the unfortunate singers, players, and conductors who are suddenly called upon to make the public hear the wonders which the newspapers are describing so lavishly. At ordinary times they simply refuse to do this...You cannot "make an effect" with Mozart, or work your audience up by playing on their hysterical susceptibilities."


"Nothing but the finest execution - beautiful, expressive, and intelligent - will serve; and the worst of it is in that the phrases are so pefectly clear and straightforward that you are found out the moment you swerve by a hair's breadth from perfection, whilst, at the same time, your work is so obvious, that everyone thinks it must be easy, and puts you down remorselessly as a duffer for botching it."


"Naturally, then, we do not hear much of Mozart; and what we do hear goes far to destroy his reputation. But there was no getting out of the centenary: something had to be done. Accordingly, the Crystal Palace committed itself to the Jupiter Symphony and the Requiem; and the Albert Hall, by way of varying the entertainment, announced the Requiem and the Jupiter Symphony."



The San Francisco Symphony should get some credit for varying the fare a bit. As Jack Murray said when giving me a birthday present many years ago of a Pergolesi "Stabat Mater" recording, "yes, it's a 'Stabat Mater' but it's an UP 'Stabat Mater.' " The same could be said for the "Coronation" Mass, which is what might be called an "UP" mass,
and the performance was swift, fun and beautiful.

3 comments:

Trevor Murphy said...

Great post Mike: I completely agree about Mozart and Haydn often being dwarfed by halls like Davies (the effect is a little like chefs who plate a lonely piece of fish on a vast square of porcelain). I've always liked that passage in Shaw, too, except for the bit that implies Haydn was a worse symphonist- that's just silly, right?

sfmike said...

Dear Trevor: I don't think Shaw was implying that Haydn was a worst symphonist, merely that Mozart was quite completely in a league of his own. And oddly enough, that was what got demonstrated last night at the concert, and it wasn't what I was expecting. They were playing late, London Haydn (including Symphony No. 96, the "Miracle") and it was all lovely, but the early Mozart took my breath away. It was a different level of inspiration.

Houston said...

I was there Saturday night also. I thought the Haydn exceptional, even interesting. Unfortunately I had an asthma triggered coughing episode at the beginning of the Mozart, so I wasn't able to loose myself to it as I might have otherwise.

This is an excellent post. I hadn't read that Shaw commentary on Mozart. I wish I could have read your post prior to the concert.

Nice seeing you on Friday. I lasted about ten minutes. I'd much rather have spent the time visiting with you. Another time perhaps.