Where does Mozart belong today? Regardless of whether his relevance needs to be defended with dazzling smoke machines, spectacular lighting and elevated staging in the round of Manchester Cathedral, Manchester Camerata and Sven Helbig’s collaboration chose to ignore such questions. Taking Mozart’s Serenade in B flat, the Gran Partita as the point of departure, Camerata invited electronic composer Helbig to improvise live soundscapes in response to the piece, in what was billed as a “trial of the divine Wolfgang”.

Conceptually, the idea of Gran Partita acting as a starting point for a musical exploration is a fabulous take on the piece’s Harmoniemusik origins. Whilst murky in original intention, the settled understanding of the work as a tremendously elaborate piece of functional music suggests that extemporisation is already built into Mozart’s score. The inclusion of Helbig, a supremely creative composer, improviser and producer of electronic music, as a means of satisfying this aspect was a big draw, continuing Camerata’s admirable commitment to cross-genre collaboration. What I expected was a extension of this collaborative spirit – what we were treated to somewhat missed the mark.

The performance began with members of the Camerata’s wind section scattered around the Cathedral. With each player live-mic’d, instrumentalists played snippets of melodies from Gran Partita that were fed back to Helbig behind his apt disc-jockey altar, and thrown back into the space via two loudspeakers. Led by oboist Rachel Clegg, the ensemble gradually moved through the audience to their raised platform in the round before eventually beginning the Adagio.

Whilst the combination of live feedback, a cavernous Cathedral acoustic and all the spectacular paraphernalia made for a striking opening gesture, the opening wasn’t entirely seamless. Helbig’s transition music appeared too early, abruptly ending upon the realisation that all the players hadn’t actually made it to the stage. Then came a long period of non-instrumental stasis, which diminished the impact of the rich, sonorous, near-Wagnerian opening. When Helbig’s build eventually came, it fell neatly into one of the most enduring clichés of electronic music – white noise utilised as a transitory build-up, immediately followed by silence.

The opening wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly brave and commendably inventive. Awkwardly however, its bold delivery set up the expectation of more of the same – a continued interplay between instrumentalists and digital artist, a creative use of the surroundings, and an improvisatory feel. It was disappointing on several levels therefore, when the ensemble proceeded to perform the whole of the Gran Partita, uninterrupted and acoustically. The silence between movements was crying out for some input from Helbig, a spectator for most of the performance.

The bedrock of collaborative projects such as these is, of course, strong musical ideas, and amidst some disappointing conceptual realisations, there was some fantastic playing. The thirteen instrumentalists from Manchester Camerata impressed with rich, resonant tones through the opening Adagio, nimble bassoon lines through the later fast movements, and just enough frivolity to make the final movement peek cheekily out of the sombre, atmospheric surroundings. One particular advantage of Camerata’s ‘standing’ policy (audience members were encouraged to walk around mid-performance) was the ability to fine-tune your own acoustic experience, an interesting aspect that could have been encouraged more by the performers. Overall then, the evening was perplexing; commendably adventurous but lacking in substantial delivery of the concept.

***11