In just a little under a week begins the Salzburg Festival, an annual month-long feast on musical delectations, especially those by the city’s favourite son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Closer to the Antipodes, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has offered a taste of the Festspiele experience with its own Mozart Festival, celebrating not only some of the master’s most treasured works but also his intimate letters, extracts of which have been read out between each performance and help to paint a richer picture of Mozart the man.

Richard Egarr © Marco Borggreve
Richard Egarr
© Marco Borggreve

The second of the three concerts, as the programme notes explain, traced Mozart’s ‘Golden Years’ in Vienna following his self-initiated and unsanctioned break from working at the court of the Salzburg Prince Archbishop. The spirited Chaconne and Pas de Seul from the ballet section of Idomeneo served as exuberant overture to two staples of Mozartiana, the Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major and Symphony no. 40 in G minor.

This was music-making of dynamism and three-dimensional depth, the crisp acoustics of Hamer Hall particularly suiting itself to the delicacies of the repertoire and the interplay between instruments. Richard Egarr’s conducting from ground level rather than the traditional podium, more akin to his practice of directing from the keyboard (alas, not to be exhibited today), indicated a more collegial and less formal approach to the role that, while still offering confident and robust artistic leadership, gave the orchestra opportunity to shine of its own accord. Egarr was keen to ensure that the entire orchestra bowed as one with him, sharing in the honour of the audience’s applause and appreciation.

Kristian Bezuidenhout first gained prominence as a winner of the Bruges Fortepiano Competition. Hence, although classed more generally as a ‘pianist’, there is a palpable historicity in the sound he produces at the piano, which did not overwhelm with volume yet cut through the hall with its clarity of tone and artistic interpretation. Subtly delivered and tasteful ornamentation kept repetitions of melodies and repeated sections fresh while, to Bezuidenhout’s great credit, this aspect of keyboard virtuosity was never shown off as a feature above of the work.

Another particular highlight of this pianist’s performance was his attention to the left hand and bass as an equal party in the musical dialogue with orchestra, as opposed to a more typical right-hand, treble-centric approach. This allowed some often neglected imitations between the piano and woodwinds to be brought to the fore, with delightful results. Having said this, it is a shame that the middle to higher registers of the piano did not penetrate with the same acoustic clarity as the bass, and the lustre of Mozart’s right hand flourishes was slightly dulled. Barring some errant orchestral intonation, this was all in all a consummate and successful performance, and Egarr’s and Bezuidenhout’s collaboration was a worthwhile insight into a masterpiece that can be vulnerable to excessive performance and broadcast.

The G minor Symphony never fails to surprise with its disarmingly immediate commencement, and Egarr executed this with ample momentum and rhythmic drive, allowing for a seamless repeat of the exposition. Darkness, the often overlooked quality in Mozart’s composition, was especially heightened in the subsequent Andante, and the orchestra’s richly sonorous delivery of prolonged discords here did well to remind us that, before the era of nominally "Romantic" composers, Mozart and his contemporaries considered themselves as eminently romantic also, with harmonic audacity not so far removed from the Mahlers and Strausses who came after. As in the extracts from Idomeneo, the MSO revelled in the intricacies of Mozart’s contrapuntal exchanges throughout the symphony, wasting no opportunity to play musically and, in the iconic if caricatured Mozartian spirit captured so well in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, to play using music.