What is the probability that both an orchestra and its conductor would be celebrating the same birthday? Fairly slim, I should imagine. However in the case of Howard Shelley and the London Mozart Players, they are septuagenarians together; and yet the energy and vibrancy of their music-making on display this evening belied their age. The programme for tonight’s concert was as elegantly balanced as the sound from the LMP. The concert began and ended with symphonies both in D major, one neoclassical, the other the apogee of the classical period, while the two works in between respectively looked forward to and back over the romantic period.

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

Prokofiev’s ever popular “Classical” Symphony no. 1 in D major is full of Haydnesque turn of phrase but with the piquant bite of modern harmonies. The LMP and conductor Shelley made the opening Allegro fizz with energy and life. There was coquettish charm to the violins’ grace notes and falling octaves while the bassoon chirruped and the trumpet issued its joyful proclamation. At times, in the more robust section I longed for a more meaty sound which a larger orchestra would naturally provide. Shelley brought out the whimsical and ironic elements to the fore in the Larghetto, something clearly heard in the final pizzicato of the double basses. The Gavotte was beautifully shaped while the finale was breathless with excitement with its swoosh of rising scales and busy semiquavers.

Pausing in between the works, Shelley gave a little talk explaining both the Prokofiev and the Mozart. He is a laconic raconteur and had the audience eating out of his hand. With the body of the piano facing into the orchestra, Shelley conducted from the piano using an iPad, the glow from the screen was a small if constant visual distraction. Mozart’s great C major piano concerto paves the way for the concertos of Beethoven with its surprising, daring modulations and its large-scale, symphonic conception. LMP delivered the opening Allegro maestoso with a fresh sound, the lively scales pulsating with rhythm. Shelley chose a tempo that was on the fast side of Maestoso, but the contrapuntal lines shone with limpid clarity. His tone on the piano was always elegant; at times muscular when it needed to be, as in the chordal exchange with the orchestra; at other times cantabile in the chiaroscuro moments of the shifting major-minor tonal centres. The cadenza was delivered with bravura, complete with romantic flourishes and complex fugal lines brilliantly delineated.

Shelley conceived the Andante in a reflective style, the pearly melody flowing smoothly along. The third movement Allegretto bubbled with joie de vivre the semiquavers rippling with good humour.

After the interval we entered into another sound world completely with Delius’s On hearing the first cuckoo in spring, one which the LMO captured from the start. The gentle, lush strings throbbed with vibrato at the start as Shelley wrung heartfelt emotion from every member of the orchestra. There was a seductive feel to the slinky jazz chords and the gentle cuckoo on the clarinet was shyly unobtrusive throughout.

It was the final work of the evening, Haydn’s Symphony no. 104 (the last of his London Symphonies) that was the highlight for me. The tonic-dominant opening declaration was suitably majestic while Shelley and the LMP made the subsequent minor Adagio section mysterious and tense with suitable evocative silences. The Allegro section bristled with characteristic good humour, the contrapuntal lines scintillatingly distilled and brought together with pellucid quality. I was impressed throughout the whole evening with the refined way Shelley phrased the music something that was particularly evident in the variations in the Andante. The fiery D minor mid-section broke out with restrained violence, the muscular lines exploring the darker side to this movement. Shelley took the tempo mark of Spiritoso to heart in the finale setting off at an exhilarating pace, the memorable motifs flying off amid terrifically busy semiquavers on the strings. This movement oozed bravura and excitement and the LMP brought Haydn’s final symphony to a convincing and triumphant conclusion.

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