Friday 7th December

Despite my reservations about a program consisting mostly of Mozart in what has to be described as a very large concert hall, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s collaboration with British tenor Ian Bostridge and conductor Bernard Labadie was highly enjoyable. Labadie’s reputation is for conducting Baroque and Classical repertoire, and it is because of this that the program had such a strong focus on the works of Mozart.

The selection of five Schubert songs was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening. Bostridge appeared totally at ease with the music, exploring the intricacies of colour and melody in Schubert’s writing. The orchestral accompaniment – arranged by Webern – augmented the possibilities of vocal shading while still maintaining the intimacy of piano writing. Though at moments the proximity of a chamber music venue would have better allowed for Bostridge’s subtleties of colour, the Hamer Hall acoustics delivered superbly, and a pleasing balance of instruments and voice seemed effortless on the part of the performers. The brooding Ihr Bild (Her Image) was particularly striking, and Bostridge’s upper register in these songs was outstanding.

The excerpts from Mozart’s opera Idomeneo which preceded the interval, while equally stunning technically,  felt somewhat out of place in the overall arc of the concert. Bostridge executed the arias with passion, ringing Italian, and particularly impressive cadenzas. However, the flow of this segment was unconvincing, with the music seeming to loose rather than gain momentum heading into the interval.

Framing the vocal works, Mozart’s symphonies no. 31 (Paris) and the famous no. 40 were played with buoyancy and delicacy. The opening movements of both works erred on the side of dainty when they could maybe have used a little more umph. It was clear that Bernard Labadie’s musical focus was with the minute gestures rather than the greater arc of the music, which gave the second movement of the Paris symphony in particular a dazzling clarity of sound and musical contour. Lower voices carried beautifully, with even the gentlest of cello pizzicatos clearly audible. It was maybe a little surprising, then, that the woodwind were not more present in the mixture, and that inner-voice melodies in the concluding symphony were occasionally unclear. Both works gained momentum heading into the final movements, with Labadie demanding crisp articulation and bubbling energy.

A concert on the light side thematically perhaps, but nevertheless performed with flair and sparkle.