REVIEW: Howard Shelley and the London Mozart Players at St John’s Smith Square9:45, 12th February 2015
Howard Shelley (pf); London Mozart Players
St John’s Smith Square, London
Part of Mozart Explored 2014-15
8 October, 1.05pm
It was pleasantly disorientating to sit down to a lunchtime concert that featured a chamber orchestra, particularly one as distinguished as the London Mozart Players (LMP). The ensemble has teamed up with pianist-conductor Howard Shelley to bring a six-part series of Mozart concertos to London’s St John’s Smith Square, with instalments taking place once a month until April 2015.
Pianist-conductors need to perform facing the orchestra, rather than side on, as the piano would usually be positioned during a concerto. But this means playing with the lid down, in order to maintain eye contact with the ensemble, which can affect the sound quality. The enterprising Shelley has come up with a solution: a bespoke Perspex piano lid that reflects the sound back to the audience behind him and provides a ‘window’ between him and the orchestra.
Shelley prefaced the October concert – which was well attended – with a short lecture about the concerto and its links to Haydn. Shelley discussed tonal centres and key deviations in great depth, illustrating his musings on tonic-dominant tonality with examples at the keyboard. It was interesting, but I’m not convinced a lunchtime concert was the best place for it. Perhaps this well-heeled audience is very familiar with Grade 5 theory of music, but personally I would have liked an explanation of the transparently lidded piano and how this set-up closely reflects that of Mozart’s era, which was not mentioned at all.
But it is unsurprising that Shelley feels the need to share the minutiae of Mozart’s writing, as this is clearly music that feeds his soul. This may surprise IP readers, many of whom are familiar with Shelley’s recordings of lesser-known Romantic piano concertos for Hyperion’s best-selling CD series. However, this concert, together with Shelley’s recent release of Dussek piano concertos for Hyperion’s new Classical concertos project, shows that the pianist is just as comfortable in core repertoire.
In the first movement, Shelley found a depth of colour and touch that felt completely fresh. He is enchanting to watch; at ease both on and off the stool, as the LMP wind section superbly illustrated its emancipation. The cadenza was that of Denis Matthews, which was finely calibrated and filled the hall with effortless brilliance. A sudden autumnal downpour enhanced the brooding moments in the second movement. This intense rainstorm caused a leak in the roof, and although the audience remained dry, the percussive watery addition was a momentary distraction. In the third movement we were treated to filigree melodies and impeccable phrasing and, in harmony with the music, the sun returned.
This was musicianship and ensemble-playing at its best, and it was a delight to see the LMP – who have had a challenging time of late (the group was taken over by its players after the withdrawal of council funding pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy earlier in the year) back on their feet. However, it would be incorrect to say that everything is rosy – we were encouraged to donate to the orchestra via text message after the concert (another forward-thinking initiative) and reminded that the concert would probably still make a loss of £3-4k, which seems unthinkable. But then, tickets are a snip at £10.
City workers, Londoners and day-trippers – you are warmly urged to go and see this fantastic series. At the cost of less than a round of drinks it will be the best lunch-break you’ve ever had.
Howard Shelley and the London Mozart Players present The Mozart Explored Series 2014-15: 5 November; 3 December; 4 February; 4 March; 1 April, concerts begin at 1.05pm and tickets cost £10. For more information click here