Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

The Perfect Concert

Coming away from Tuesday night’s Salzburg Mozarteum concert at the National Concert Hall my mind was filled with questions. How do orchestras become so collectively inspired? What is it that holds them together? What are the inner workings of a group of fifty or sixty people whose life demands that they concentrate on each other’s output, musically, as well as delivering their own account of perfection in performance? What are the things that go wrong? What are the mistakes that sometimes happen in programming? How does the soloist – if there is one – fit in with his transient encounter with such an overwhelming expression of artistic excellence?

He transcends it, of course. Joshua Bell did this in his marvellous playing of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. The informative programme note on this work recalls the fact that its first performance, in 1845, in Dresden, was a last-minute substitution. Schumann, who had organised the series of concerts, which were to be conducted by Ferdinand Hiller, was to have included his own Piano Concerto with his wife, Clara, playing. She fell ill and he turned to Mendelssohn and asked him for his new Violin Concerto, to which Mendelssohn readily agreed.

Mendelssohn’s own short life was even then close to its end. He lived a further two years. He was a friend of the conductor for the concerts, Ferdinand Hiller, who was also a composer, of opera, among other things, and they moved in a small but talented circle of composers and performers, among them the great nineteenth-century violinist and teacher, Ferdinand David, who had already worked on the Mendelssohn composition and gave its first performance in March of that year, 1845. It had taken seven years in the composition with frequent consultations between the composer and the violinist. David would have played the concerto, but was otherwise engaged. He had at the time a brilliant pupil, Joseph Joachim, who was only 14, but who was to become in due course the greatest of all nineteenth-century violinists.

Joachim was already celebrated. He had performed in London, was acclaimed there by the critics, and he went on to become a major figure in musical circles. A commentator, towards the end of his life (Joachim died in 1907) described him as ‘a great moral power in the musical life of our days’. Joachim himself had a capacity for expressive judgements of music. He said of this concerto by his friend, that of all four of the great German violin concertos of the nineteenth century(by Beethoven, Brahms, Bruch and Mendelssohn), this was ‘the dearest of them all, the heart’s jewel’.

Joshua Bell played it with an electrifying mixture of force and tenderness. Coming onto the stage of the National Concert Hall on Tuesday night he looked about twenty years old, his hair bobbing to the movement of the instrument, his body swivelling round to ensure that the orchestra was with him. He is a most accomplished player and he gave an outstanding performance. This American performer, who grew up on a farm in Bloomington, Indiana, and started the violin at the age of four, has captivated audiences for twenty years and has a huge output of CDs to his name.

I think of the concerto as being like a three-tiered cake. The first movement at the bottom, weighty and passionate, the second lighter but full of lyricism, the third a supreme crowning achievement of virtuoso playing and of such dexterity as to cause a perpetual wonder in the heart.

This was a well-constructed concert. Nothing in Wagner’s output as a composer has quite the emotional impact of the Siegfried Idyll, which was composed for Cosima, and performed on her birthday in 1870. She celebrated it on Christmas Day – in fact it fell on Christmas Eve – and for the performance sixteen musicians assembled on the staircase leading up to her bedroom.

It symbolised for both of them the conclusion of a protracted love affair, started in 1863 when Cosima was Hans von Bülow’s wife and Wagner still married to the actress Minna Planer, though they were estranged. The birthday playing went on all day. They had the first performance. Then they had breakfast. Then the musicians gave a concert of several works, beginning and ending with the Idyll.

It has stood the test of time magnificently and provided a wonderful beginning to the Tuesday evening concert. This concluded with a profoundly intelligent performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. Though it is confined within the seemingly predictable brilliance of Mozart’s late works – it was his second-last symphony and came at a difficult time in his personal life, with poverty, marital problems and a decline in his popularity – it has much in it that is experimental, musically speaking.

If Joshua Bell came on stage masquerading as a twenty-year old neophyte, his conductor, Ivor Bolton, who has directed the musical life of the Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg since 2004, looked a bit like a jolly butcher and had strangely awkward gestures of approval and excitement with which he commended for applause the brilliant horn, clarinet, flute and bassoon players at the end of the symphony.

But does he know his Mozart! He brought out the searching, questing interrogation that is part of the music’s bewildering strength and he rounded it off with a tender, gentle and sad closing of the door into Mozart’s mind at the penultimate stage in his life, three years before its end. He composed the three last symphonies in the summer of 1788.

How does one write about works of which one critic said: ‘Considered as pure music, it is hardly worth while to ask whether the world possesses anything more perfect.’

We have a store of comparable treats lined up for us in the months ahead. There will be details of these released in the coming week. I will be booking my passage.