Crete is more than just a stone’s throw from the Greek mainland, but it is the biggest of the Hellenic islands and a rich source of mythological stories. One of these was seized upon by the 25-year-old Mozart when commissioned to write an opera seria for the Residenztheater in Munich. What then emerged has claims to being his greatest choral opera, but it is notable too for the ballet music designed to be played at the very end of the tale of Idomeneo, King of Crete.

Constantinos Carydis conducts the Frankfurt RSO © hr | Tim Wegner
Constantinos Carydis conducts the Frankfurt RSO
© hr | Tim Wegner

What better link, one might therefore suppose, than to get the Greek conductor Constantinos Carydis, who is himself scheduled to conduct a new production of Idomeneo in Munich this coming July, to direct the Frankfurt Radio Symphony in the ballet suite. What was on offer, however, was a mere taster. The suite which normally consists of five movements was here reduced to the opening Chaconne and the following Pas seul. Wonderfully grand moments of D major to be sure and at the headlong speeds that Carydis chose for the faster sections undeniably bracing and energising. At times it almost sounded as though he had summoned up every fury from the underworld. Yet any ballet dancer attempting choreography at this tempo would surely have needed orthopaedic treatment to follow.

The Greek connection was much more potent in another suite which opened the concert, this time drawn from Periklis Koukos’ opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was my very first encounter with the music of Koukos, a former director of Greek National Opera and the composer of several operatic works. The 20-minute-piece comprising almost a dozen contrasting sections is big on atmosphere, though given that Shakespeare’s play is set in Athens I was rather hoping for some Mediterranean languor. Instead I was quite strongly reminded of the music of Nielsen and in the many pastoral-like sections of Vaughan Williams. There were several opportunities for the leader, Florin Silviu Iliescu, and the principal flute, Sebastian Wittiber, to shine in their solos; celesta, piano, xylophone, cymbal, triangle and harp added splashes of colour.

Igor Levit © hr | Tim Wegner
Igor Levit
© hr | Tim Wegner

The star billing was Igor Levit, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 27 in B flat major. This is often seen as foreshadowing the composer’s tragic end and standing, in Alfred Einstein’s phrase, “at the gate of heaven”, with the kind of rapt inwardness in the central Larghetto that induces intimations of mortality. Yet Mozart had no inkling that he would die less than a year after completing the work in early 1791. Levit clearly doesn’t see this work as overly elegiac either and pursued brisk speeds. Even in that jewel of a slow movement melancholy was kept at bay. I did wonder whether he needs to have lived with this music a little longer: the use of a tablet score was perhaps an indication of not being completely inside this music. That notwithstanding, the Apollonian clarity and aristocratic tone of his playing were most evident in the cadenzas of the two outer movements.

What bothered me more was a sense that pianist and conductor were inhabiting two different worlds. There was no eye contact between Carydis and Levit: the conductor was glued to his score and the pianist often nodded to individual wind principals during their many exchanges. The chamber-like qualities of this performance were accentuated by the small string complement (only six first violins and two basses), which produced one remarkable effect as the first movement moved into the minor key and the ghostly violins descended to a vaporised sound. Elsewhere though the all-important Mozartian charm and grace were in short supply.

 

 This performance was reviewed from the hr-Sinfonieorchester live video stream

 

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