Show Hide image

Mozart: the Complete Violin Concertos

This recording for Nonesuch captures the restlessness of the young Mozart

In Mozart’s day, before the artist became obsessed with the preciousness of his own creativity, composers composed in quantity, bulk, if you like. Besides his 22 operas, 41 symphonies, 27 piano concertos and 23 string quartets, not to mention dozens of cassations, divertimenti, sonatas and Masses, Mozart wrote five violin concertos. Most later composers were happy to let their reputations rest with just the one. They noticed that overproductivity diffuses impact, gave repetitive manufacture to the machine, and persuaded us that the ideal creative artist was a unique individual, touched by divinity, whose every utterance was a revelation or insight. This greatly increased the value of single works. We paid for the artist’s struggle.

Mozart’s five violin concertos give every impression of having been composed without any struggle at all. They flow exuberantly in easy major keys, exuding abundant graceful melody, often in place of development of existing themes, and demanding refined rather than show-off virtuosity – traits that make them classics of the elegant but somewhat shallow fashion known as the stil galant. They were written in Salzburg during the composer’s teenage years, the first in 1773 following a triumphant tour of Italy, the other four in 1775 after an extended visit to Vienna during which Mozart revelled in acclaim but failed to secure any permanent patron. This disappointment intensified the resentment he already felt for his native city, where his employer, the Catholic Church, demeaned him, underemployed him and permitted him to tour only with the greatest reluctance. It is not known which violinist they were written for; it could have been himself. His father reckoned he’d have been a top player if he had worked at it.

On the present Nonesuch double CD, the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer, with his own band, Kremerata Baltica, captures a certain pent-up frustration in the five concertos that he missed 20 years ago when he last recorded them for Deutsche Grammophon. His singing line wants to break free from its respectable constraints. One senses an underlying restlessness in the solo part that becomes more pronounced with each new work. The last episode of the last movement of the last concerto is a Turkish march with a spiky melody and snappy, somewhat threatening col legno (“with the wood of the bow”) effects, which Kremer and Kremerata spit out angrily.

The queasy rise-and-fall chromatic scales would have disturbed the genteel gallants, and prefigure Don Giovanni.

The rondo theme set against this insubordinate march is an inoffensive courtly minuet, which Kremer playfully varies with winking ornaments and knowing slurs. In only a few months, Mozart would tell the archbishop where he could stick his job and set up in Vienna as the first freelancer in music history.

The band, comprising musicians from the three Baltic states – Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania – plays with tight ensemble and gleamingly honed tone, heard especially in individual long notes held and swelled excitingly through the precise orchestral bustle. In Concerto No 1, the fiddles pant out the pumping quavers under the simple, opening, scale-wise theme. Kremer’s ornaments squeal like a 19-year-old gap-year student freed from adult control for the first time. The composer’s juvenile worldliness is apparent. The last rondo episode of Concerto No 3 was identified as a folk melody from Strasbourg only as recently as 1956, since when the work has been called the Strassburger. Mozart’s arpeggiated parabolas, which spring from the galumphing theme, remain just within the boundaries of polite convention.

All four 1775 works have three movements, including an allegro opening, a slow middle mostly in the dominant and a rondo finale. There was nothing shameful about creating by formula in the pre-industrial age. The antidote to repetition lay in the cadenzas that live performers were expected to improvise on the spot. Few artists risk this nowadays and it is a shame that Kremer has chosen to retain the “extemporisations” composed by Robert Levin for his previous recording. This is not because they are unsuitable or inappropriate. They deploy with scholarly dexterity the themes of the movement thus far, nodding towards the present in juicy, wrong-note ornaments and brief excursions to distant keys. It is only that the chance to break free of the written notes anew, a saving grace that Mozart himself provides, has not been taken.

Kremer, who has championed Astor Piazzolla, John Adams and Philip Glass (he will play Glass’s only violin concerto at the Proms on 12 August), is a diverse enough performer to have improvised tellingly in these solo spots. It’s an opportunity wasted.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.