Mozart, Serenade No. 10, Gran Partita – The Great Hall, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

 Ensemble: Figure

Conductor: Frederick Waxman

On hearing the Adagio of Mozart’s Gran Partita, Antonio Salieri, in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, finds himself overwhelmed: “This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seems to me that I was hearing the voice of God”. Johann Friedrich Schink, a contemporary of Mozart, hearing the piece for the first time in 1784, exclaimed, “Oh, what an effect it made – glorious and grand, excellent and sublime”.

Some of us may have first come to this Adagio through a scene in Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009) in which Keats and his friends break into a melodic a cappella arrangement, a performance in keeping with film’s focus on simple craft and creativity. First performed about ten years before Keats’s birth, Mozart’s Gran Partita, also known as the Serenade No 10 for Winds, was written in the eighteenth-century tradition of Harmoniemusik – pieces for a small group of wind instruments, usually performed in private settings at the behest of wealthy patrons. It has an intimacy that suits the domestic setting of the film.

But at the same time it is gloriously showy – Mozart producing cascades of variations and changes of tone, mood and pace that are simply dazzling. His major innovation here was to double the traditional scoring for single instruments (horn, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and basset horn), thereby adding to the rich layering of the work. In addition, he includes a double bass, breaking with the Harmoniemusik tradition that never mixed wind and bass.

But the Gran Partita is a piece not often performed, so to hear it played so brilliantly in tonight’s concert in the gorgeous setting of the Great Hall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital is pure pleasure. The ensemble is Figure, a newly-established band specialising in historical performance, lead by the exuberant Frederick Waxman, a young conductor of exceptional vitality, warmth and musicianship. He is keenly attentive to pace and dynamics, from the overture-like Largo to the playful dance music in the two Menuetti.

The instrumentalists play standing up, compellingly responsive and exuding sheer enjoyment. Mozart gives the most soaring melodies to the clarinets and oboes. Katherine Spencer, James Maltby, Leo Duarte and Oonagh Lee all produce exquisite sounds. On the bassoon, Joe Qiu is mesmerising, almost dancing as he played.

The overall effect is to leave one speechless. As Pierre Boulez said of the Adagio in 2008, “It’s a magical, ceremonial moment – like a ritual”.

Performed 19 November 2021

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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