Filmed at St John’s, Smith Square, London
Streamed on the London Mozart Players’ website on Thursday, February 18, 2021, and available to view until September
Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga
The London Mozart Players’ popular Piano Explored lunchtime series at St John’s, in association with International Piano magazine, has for several years provided an affable introduction to the highways and byways of the Concerto repertoire. Howard Shelley, the orchestra’s principal conductor since 2015, is the perfect host, informed and humoured, unassumingly cultured, happy to illustrate and analyse without forcing the issue. He’s a pianist (as his recordings testify) who has lost nothing of his remarkable facility at the keyboard (he’s seventy-one next month). Quiet hand position, warmth of tone, purling runs and speaking ornaments, a resistance to gratuitous speed or percussive thunder hallmark his style. He makes gentlemanly music.
This opening concert of the seventh series (five monthly events) featured Saint-Saëns’s ‘Bach to Offenbach’ Second Concerto, the ubiquitous G-minor, and Mendelssohn’s relatively unfamiliar Capriccio brillante in B-minor, written in his early twenties. Not everything came off, the risks of the ‘live’ moment – passing ensemble issues (plus a broken string) in the Saint-Saëns, not easily explainable tempo shifts in the Allegro of the Capriccio. Mendelssohn’s Weber-ish marcia writing might perhaps have elicited a crisper orchestral response. But the lyrical paragraphs in both works unfolded with eloquence, the ruminative chords of the B-major introduction to the latter coming off especially well in the pre-concert demonstration. Putting Mendelssohn’s con fuoco into perspective, unwilling to race Saint-Saëns’s 6/8 Scherzo, was welcome.
With the notes and phrases, each expressive elongation, the eighteenth-century ambience of the venue, old ghosts oddly surfaced. Shelley’s modulated ‘Talking about Music’ delivery reminded of those BBC broadcasts Antony Hopkins used to do, enlightening amateurs and professionals alike. The orchestra’s commitment and chamber philosophy, little changed over time, transported me to post-war Harry Blech/Nina Milkina days. Small in number, big in heart. Kensington Gardens was my playground as a boy, Orme Square to the north across the Bayswater Road, the Royal Albert Hall and RCM at the southern perimeter. I’d daily walk pass Clementi’s old house in Church Street where young Mendelssohn used to visit the Horsley girls. Orme Square was where Viennese-born Marion Stein, Countess of Harewood, resided. You’d occasionally hear a piano. Orme Square was where the Strasbourg pianist Edward Dannreuther, of RCM renown, had once lived, hosting private concerts at No.12, his door always open. I haven’t been back in years. The aura of the hour kindled an urge to return.