Returning to the Stoller Hall for a first live concert since October 2019, the Manchester Camerata continued their expedition through Mozart’s piano concertos with characteristic panache. The goal of the orchestra’s ambitious “Mozart, Made in Manchester” project is simple: to record the full cycle of Mozart piano concertos with music director Gábor Takács-Nagy and indefatigable pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. The series started promisingly prior to lockdown and here resumed with two bastions of the later concertos, numbers 22 and 23.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Gábor Takács-Nagy and the Manchester Camerata
© Manchester Camerata

Takács-Nagy takes a largely traditional approach to this classical repertoire, with the orchestra playing on modern instruments, first and second violins seated together to his left, and a very generous helping of rubato. His attention to precision detail in curating microscopic aspects of articulation, ensemble, phrasing and dynamics never came at the expense of musical drama. Both concertos flowed freely and elegantly, with a warm, vibrato-laden string sound easily filling the hall.

The A major concerto, K488, was the highlight of the evening. Taut ensemble was established from the outset, and the many intricate interplays between wind players were handled with great delicacy. In the slow movement, there were some sublime moments of interaction between clarinet triplets, wind soloists, string pizzicato and pianist, creating a remarkable sense that we were simply observing friends playing together. The finale fizzed from the pages at a ravishing pace, bassoon and clarinet quavers pouring forth with apparent ease. The intense level of articulative detail was in sharp contrast to moments of deadpan humour from Bavouzet at the keyboard. The recording of this performance will be well worth hearing: in the search for a traditional-approach reading of the piece, it would be hard to imagine it done better.

Bavouzet’s playing throughout the evening was light in touch but rich in careful phrasing, and his interaction with both orchestra and audience, frequently shooting glances in each direction, was a rare joy to witness. His cadenzas in both concertos gave opportunity for some momentary fireworks, as did the finale of the E flat major concerto, where his playing dazzled alongside woodwind and horn solos.

Gábor Takács-Nagy and the Manchester Camerata
© Manchester Camerata

The other titan on the agenda was the Symphony no. 40 in G minor. Played with the orchestra standing, a similar approach of stark contrasts and enthusiastic rubato was taken. With double basses playing with Beethovenian gusto and the outer movements bristling along with scarcely pause for breath, the almost unrelenting brooding tension made this an intense experience.

The evening was bookended with good humour. Introducing the overture to Der Schauspieldirektor, Takács-Nagy relayed the story of his own discovery of this lesser-known piece, when selecting a random CD to accompany a deep-clean of his study enforced by his wife. An infectious enthusiasm for the music set the tone for the rest of the concert, along with a punchy orchestral sound suggestive of far greater numbers than the 21 string players on stage. By way of encore, a new arrangement by Simon Parkin was introduced of the finale to Holst’s St Paul’s Suite, reworked for full orchestra. It made for a rowdy, stomp-along end to a memorable evening.