Whispering Wolfgang at Kings Place

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Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace
, Updated 21st March 2012

A rare performance of Mozart's music for glass harmonica at Kings Place intrigues Helen Wallace

Can it be that the more flawed the work, the more revealing? Our picture of Mozart is formed almost entirely via a stream of his operatic and symphonic masterpieces, those outpourings of inspired poetic perfection, which rush past without so much as a momentary snag or a doubting glance. Having just heard Le Nozze di Figaro (ENO) and then the Academy of St Martin in the Fields hurtling through the magnificent Prague Symphony (Kings Place), it came as something of a shock to encounter Mozart struggling, both with form and the challenge of new technology.

The Schubert Ensemble’s concert at Kings Place on 16 October drew a crowd, no doubt to witness a rare performance of Mozart’s two works for glass harmonica. This modest instrument, which works on the principle that the friction from a wet finger drawn around the rim of a glass creates a tone, was developed by the inventive genius Benjamin Franklin (in 1762). He arranged graded sizes of glass bowls concentrically along a pedal-driven spindle, so making it possible for the performer to make a continuous sound.

(above: Thomas Bloch plays music by Mozart on the Glass Harmonica. Source: YouTube)

And what an evocative sound…. it seemed to be the glassy, spectral last-drawn breath of the 18th century that emanated from the dripping fingers of engaging exponent, Alasdair Malloy. He gave a brief, entertaining history of the craze for ‘armonicas’ (Gluck was a virtuoso, even Beethoven composed for it). For a while, it was a must in every aristocratic household in Europe, taken up enthusiastically by fellow Freemason Anton Mesmer (an acquaintance of the Mozarts) as part of his ‘mesmerising’ cure to stimulate the seat of animal magnetism, cure illnesses and calm the insane. After hearing Malloy perform the fragile Adagio K365, which sounds like a distant fairground organ and inhabits the world of The Magic Flute, one could understand why the harmonica soon became notorious for precisely the opposite effect: far from promoting harmony, its ethereal whispering was thought to tangle with the nerves. And when Malloy launched into the rather ordinary Adagio and Rondo with string quartet (K617) where every quaver quavers on the edge of silence, and a quick-drying finger can result in an inadvertently broken chord or excruciating gasp, apprehension drew close to insanity… this was the composer’s last chamber work, and began to sound to my ears like the wheezing laughter of his ghost, amused at our po-faced reverence for his little piece of kitsch.

Another odd late work in the programme was the Adagio in B minor K540, played with quiet intensity by William Howard. A fragmented, hesitant narrative of despair reveals Mozart exploring distant tonalities, aching suspensions and a condensed, almost deconstructed development redolent of late Beethoven. In that unexpected melting into the major at the end, he also seems to anticipate Schubert: there’s a fascinating sense of a mind straining towards the musical future.

The remainder of the concert found Mozart on a high, with George Caird the soloist in the explosively virtuosic Oboe Quartet turning somersaults on the harmonic high-wire, while the brief but satisfying Piano Concerto K449 fuses contrapuntal acrobatics with all the drama of opera buffa.

 Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Contributor profile

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace