Mozart knew he was a genius. He also knew exactly how to make music that sounds as if it simply couldn’t happen any other way; his music feels so right that any other combination of notes, chords or phrases than those he used would seem wrong. This knowledge simply radiates from his music, which he unfurls so brilliantly that a listener cannot help but feel a wonderful sense of musical satisfaction, and so self-consciously that behind every passage is the image of the composer smiling knowingly (and not a little cheekily) at the inevitable reaction of the audience to such musical perfection.

Roger Norrington © Alberto Venzago
Roger Norrington
© Alberto Venzago

It wasn’t always the case, though. In the Zurich Chamber Orchestra’s all-Mozart concert at Cadogan Hall, under the direction of a scoreless Sir Roger Norrington, a Mozart was on show whose tentative steps into the vast territory of music did no more than intimate the fact that he soon would become its king. The Symphony no. 1 in E-flat major, K.16 was composed when he was only eight years old, though, so we can forgive young Wolfgang for the absence of that emblematic sense of ease and self-confidence that positively oozes from practically his whole œuvre, and certainly the remaining pieces on the concert’s programme: the Piano Concerto no. 21 in C major, K. 467 and the Symphony no. 41 in C major, K. 441 ‘Jupiter’.

As well as being a fascinating insight into the initial development of perhaps the most precocious musical talent the world has ever seen, the Symphony no. 1 is a charming work of aesthetic worth in itself. Norrington’s playfully eccentric gestures invited a freshness of sound from the Zurich musicians that certainly had nothing condescending to it, despite the compositional naiveté of the unison opening motif and ensuing series of suspensions. It was delightful to hear the child prodigy working his way through the structural conventions of the genre, not without effort, but with more success than the majority of music students learning to emulate his style as part of their undergraduate syllabus. The second movement saw the young composer experimenting with textures and rhythms, and the work ended with a vibrant Presto, at the end of which a cheeky Norrington swivelled on the spot to face the audience, bringing off the musicians with a jazz-hands shake, his expressive face aware of and sharing the joy that even a child Mozart could bring.

Jonathan Biss then took centre stage for the far better-known piano concerto, sitting with his back to the orchestra, the lidless Steinway pointing to the back of the hall, where Norrington perched with the orchestra facing him. Whilst this meant that the audience had a fantastic view of Biss’s hands scurrying up and down the keys – or shuffling crablike in the many rapid octave passages of the first movement – the compromise of this inside-out set-up was a view of the orchestral players’ backs. The intimate circle of musicians did little to improve ensemble cohesiveness – the split winds, flanking either side of the strings, were often noticeably out of synch – and there was an unforgivable feeling of ostracisation of the audience. Also, the fact that the orchestra was facing away from the soloist meant a substantial relinquishment of interpretative control on Biss’s behalf, and this was another problem. For it was Biss’s, not Norrington’s, Mozart we should have heard: the former, allowed little breathing space from an overly assertive conductor/orchestra combination, was far more sensitive than the latter’s insistence on briskness and horror of indulgence. Apart from some wonderful bassoon playing, the orchestra seemed unconcerned with the expressive side of Mozart’s music, and often chivvied Biss along when they should have been following his lead. Furthermore, much of his superb dexterity and pianistic subtlety was drowned out in the tutti sections where Mozart delights in giving his pianist extemporising material. The music still shone, but it was a disappointing interpretation that favoured Norrington’s belligerence over Biss’s nuance.

Back facing the audience, the musicians made up for this blip in their “Jupiter” Symphony, a piece far better suited to their brisk vivacity, and in which they offered a far greater range of dynamics and tempi. The contrast afforded by the first slow music of the evening, in the second movement, made a deep impression, though this might well have been to do with the softened tone of the muted violins, which added a mellowed sheen to the sheer beauty of the music. Another slow movement ensued, statelier in tone, before a truly fantastic finale, the fanfare-like fragments of which were ingenious dotting around across the orchestra. Norrington’s enthusiastic gesturing emphasised the pure joy that Mozart’s music can bring, and his playful rapport with the audience showed he was as aware as the composer of the sensational effect this music has upon its audience.