Some people don’t celebrate their 70th birthday, but when you’re the senior chamber orchestra of the whole country it’s different. The London Mozart Players was founded by Harry Blech in the lean postwar years and, with a succession of gifted conductors, has established itself as premier as well as senior in its field; latest but not least in this line is Howard Shelley, their Conductor Laureate.

London Mozart Players © Sim Canetty-Clarke
London Mozart Players
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Shelley’s visit to Sheffield City Hall began the International Series’ #ExploreMozart journey but the beginning of the beginning was actually Haydn – the third of his London Symphonies. Shelley emphasised the dark opening of the first movement, well spiced with discords as it is, and then brought out the contrast with the graceful second subject. The inner movements are notable for their cello solos, firstly in one of the slow movement’s set of variations, then in the whole of the Trio section. Fortunately then, the orchestra has a gifted principal cellist who cheered up the pessimistic third movement.

Entertaining as the Haydn was, the main event was always going to be Shelley directing the orchestra from the keyboard in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21 in C major. The orchestra will have played this time and again; he has played it with them and they even made a highly regarded recording together; many in the audience must have heard it a number of times. So would the whole thing be perfunctory – a bit stale perhaps? No, it was a highly polished gem. From the staccato start to the whirlwind of the rondo finale it was almost as if the composer were sitting at the piano – as he would have been in its first performance. The slow movement was used in the Swedish biopic of the tragic heroine Elvira Madigan with the result that her name is often added to the work’s title. Once again Shelley brought a freshness to the well-worn melody with subtle variations in volume and tempo, holding the audience spellbound.

The Oración del torero (Prayer of the Bullfighter) by Joaquín Turina must have been as unfamiliar to listeners as the Mozart was familiar. Shelley explained that the piece was originally written for four lutes before being arranged for string orchestra, and the result could be describe as a short tone poem. One could patronisingly list the influences detectable in the music, but the truth is that the mix of French and Spanish sounds, plus some beautiful individual parallel harmonies make this a piece that, played like this, should be heard more often.

Mozart’s Symphony no. 34 in C major is a disappointment. Although admirably played, the composer’s signature tunefulness isn’t always present. His tour of Paris had not been a success; he was fed up with his boss – the dreaded Archbishop of Salzburg – and his mother had died. Despite all that, it is a cheerful work, and the orchestra despatched the rapid, virtuoso triplets in the finale with great panache.