Review: Mozart The Great, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, City Recital Hall

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a composer whose work spans the entire breadth of what it is to be human. From ribald ditties to almost ‘pop’ hits of his day to soaring, achingly spiritual works, his music covers everything. His genius, of course, is that he adds even more dimension along the way – deeper laughter, more knife-edge pain, keener spiritual longing.

So it is particularly fitting that The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra presents its current program of the music of Mozart, Mozart The Great, under the direction of Paul Dyer, also an artist of great breadth, depth and humanity.

Instead of selecting the lazily popular, the obvious or – contrarily – the pretentiously obscure, Dyer has mixed it up beautifully. We have, at one end of the artistic spectrum, a choral canon that Mozart wrote largely for the fun of having a singer imply the words “arse” and “balls” as he mispronounced the Latin. At the other, the truly magnificent C Minor Mass (“The Great”), which vaults further toward Heaven with every movement.

Dyer has also mixed up the presentation: we have horn duets, trios, a sonata, and choral works as well as full ensemble plus chorus pieces that fill the Recital Hall stage. It is all Mozart – and it is all superlative.

One of the joys of the Brandenburg is its use of period instruments. Since most music of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries is performed nowadays with modern instruments – with their attendant ‘improvements’ in tone, volume and execution – it is only when we hear a period orchestra that we actually hear the sounds that composers such as Haydn and Mozart were reaching for. To hear ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ played as Mozart intended – in which I include the Brandenburg ensemble’s full-blooded attack on the music – was a bright gem in a glittering night.

The characteristic tones of period instruments is especially evident in the tone of the orchestra behind the singers – soprano Sara MacLiver and mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell. The period instruments, being markedly quieter and slightly more ‘woolly’ in tone, sit at a level that seemed more sympathetic to the vocal – music at a more human scale.

Dyer’s piano sonata (“with violin accompaniment”) also benefits from the use of the much quieter and woodier tone of the forte-piano, the ancestor of our present-day piano. (The comedic piano dusting on the night is a good sign that Dyer and his players are – like Mozart before them – not taking life or music too po-faced seriously).

The sharp narration from MacLiver and Campbell threads the disparate pieces together, mapping out and illuminating Mozart’s life and times. Dyer’s direction also intriguingly makes use of the various spaces within the Hall – from the opening basset horn (a great uncle of the clarinet family) duet performed in the balcony directly above the stage, to the choral canon ‘Difficile lectu mihi mars’. Here the chorus is split into sections – the women singing from various parts of the upper gallery and the men weaving through the downstairs aisles as they sing. A little theatre never hurts – Wolfgang Amadeus, a great showman himself, would have approved.

But the crown of the program is ‘The Great’ – the Mass in C Minor which takes up the entire second half of the evening, and from which the program takes its name. It is cap-G Great in every way – it is big, with the full ensemble and the 32-strong choir, as well as four voice soloists on the stage; it is artistically expansive, running to thirteen movements (even though it was unfinished at Mozart’s death in 1791) and uses a dazzling combination of voice and orchestral elements.

And it is spiritually overpowering, its brilliant solo and ensemble writing suggesting, at various points across its almost hour in length, the yearning for grace, the unfathomable depths of eternity and the smile of the beyond.

Watching Paul Dyer conducting ‘The Mass’ is a joy to behold. Utterly lost in the music, at once inside and outside its sphere, teasing and willing notes from the air – playing the Orchestra as an instrument, as all great conductors do – his energy is a symbol of the energy of the Brandenburg, one of our true national treasures.

Why this performance didn’t get a standing ovation on the night is beyond this reviewer. These Sydney crowds are tough.

City Recital Hall Angel Place
Wednesday 8 May 7pm, Friday 10 May 7pm
Saturday 11 May 7pm, Wednesday 15 May 7pm, Friday 17 May 7pm
Matinee Saturday 11 May 2pm

Melbourne Recital Centre
Saturday 18 May 7pm
Sunday 19 May 5pm

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