Towards The Light Concert, Worthing Symphony Orchestra at The Assembly Hall; Ian Fontaine, piano; Julian Leaper, Chief; John Gibbons, conductor, artistic director.
Mozart, Divertimento No. 11 in D K251; Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat; Mozart, finale of Divertimento ‘The Musical Joke’ K522; Schubert, Symphony No. 5 in Bb.
Sitting down in a large room to play a piano piece in front of, say, 30 silent listeners means you decide how different those people will feel when you’re done. You have the power. What are you going to play? Ian Fountain’s decision transformed the environment as well as the atmosphere. Not for the five minutes his choice lasted, but from the first notes that broke that silence of anticipation after he realized he had decided to play an encore.
The Assembly Hall with about 300 people seemed shrunk 10 times smaller by an intimacy and beauty that drew people together in an intimately shared reverie. A bit like the one who, for the promise of this experience, pushed the Viennese to go to a private house for a summer afternoon or a “Schubertiad” winter evening. Once the poets and poetry readers and singers of his operatic songs and arias were seated, leaving Franz Schubert alone at the piano, a single impromptu from him would be enough to play.
Hearing one for the first time can change your world. You’re on your first Schubertiad, and hooked. “Schwammerl” (“Tubby” – the nickname of Schubert’s bohemian friends for him) was the bespectacled, sometimes penniless little hero who disturbed and melted the hearts of the public.
Any Worthing ‘first time Schubertiaders’ so converted on Sunday discovered that Schubert’s piano music, like his songs, is about feelings, imagination, romance, dance, adventure, pain and laughter, and ultimately to unmask false pretences and to peel personal protective exteriors.
However, in decades of concerts, I do not recall a single piano encore of Schubert in an orchestra concert. Fountain told me he didn’t choose Schubert just because one of his favorite symphonies would follow. He just wanted to play that, the second Impromptu the four of the second set Opus 142/D935. It’s in Ab, it’s kind of a hymn to happiness, and Fountain and I agreed that the second set of both Impromptus has the deepest music.
Fountain played it, surrounded on stage by 24 silent WSO instrumentalists plus a conductor, and in front of that speechless audience, some may have first fallen in love with the music – because Fountain was brought back under the continuous applause.
Still youthful-faced beneath graying hair, Fountain shared the composer’s glasses but, upwards, (like Alfred Brendel) seems to be half Schubert’s height again. He was back in Worthing, having joined the WSO in three previous concertos and being a jury member for the Sussex International Piano Competition.
He is a piano teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, where he helped bring out the Polish pianist known from Naxos, WSO and Interview Concerts international audiences, Anna Szalucka. During this concert, he had followed both the Concertos by Brahms and the first Tchaikovsky by the first Beethoven written to try out in Vienna as a piece of self-promotion.
This classic period WSO program looked relaxed, even benign, a post-lockdown recovery with four pieces applying the balm. Interpretations of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 are often more historically conscious, remembering the weaker contemporary pianos of 1794 and seeking to highlight the recurring cheerful march, serene spirit and laid-back outlook of this concert.
Fountain and John Gibbons, however, with a modern, powerful and sonorous Steinway concert, produced a performance that backtracked in its approach and blended into the audience’s feel-good therapy the beefy, sinuous overtones familiar from the years of Beethoven’s piano virtuoso and his fiery young temperament.
Since the sustain pedal appeared around this time, its use by Fountain brought the romantic atmosphere that Beethoven was gradually ushering in. almost Liszian sweep.
They opened the piece with severity but the second tune flowed like the first soft and warm cream of winter. A wider contrast between loud and soft was frequently marked. Languid goodnight kisses and lingering caresses ended their middle move. Then they wakened the finale with vivacity from sleep, giving its mischievous main melody a hint of mischief and abandon, and made the middle pieces prance and gallop exuberantly.
“I thought I was in conversation with Beethoven – and he was in good spirits,” smiled one onlooker.
More fun came in the second half. Mozart took on the Mick in the second of his two Divertimentos on the menu, written 11 years apart. The latest, which we call The Musical Joke, is a boring, mediocre musical composition and hit British fame as the popular theme for TV’s Horse of the Year. A silly bassoon trill, cliched horn fanfares, other boring elementary ideas, a fugue too weak to leave first base, a development of boring apparent conformity, a tune too blandly handled. Yet all in a safe compositional structure as the tongue fills the cheek.
John Gibbons emerges as a latecomer to Mozart, apparently alerted by his recordings of the Naxos Concerto 2015/2018 with veteran Turkish pianist Idil Biret. But with a perspective that is still not institutionalized, today he has dared to include two Divertimenti in a symphonic concert – adding to his career catalog an enriching and revolutionary programming. He gave us a flashback to Mozart’s early fundamentals, to spot his personal mark in his obligation to write easy-to-digest entertainment, which emerged from him in elegant, flowing, busy music.
As usual in Mozart’s pre-Vienna era in his hometown of Salzburg, the Divertimenti in D were written to order, responding to the demand for sociable music for a social celebration, helping to create primarily a chatty atmosphere, optimistic and cheerful.
These Divertimenti, often for a handful of instruments, have long since been expanded by others for small orchestras, although Gibbons didn’t quite have the guts to revive the actual sonic experience by playing only with their original oboe, two horns, two violins. , viola and double bass (the one in D) or the two horns and string quartet (Musical Joke).
While the WSO’s Divertimento in D feasted on Chris O’Neil’s often high-pitched oboe, their Schubert 5th Symphony reveled in Monica McCarron’s golden flute. It’s a neat, concise piece that, in routine hands, can drift along nicely and uneventfully, but Gibbons made sure everything remained vital and ready to assert itself.
His first movement was vigorous, his second suave. The two further enlightened McCarron and O’Neil and we heard Gavin McNaughton’s bassoon lead the singing counterpoint. On the slower movement, twin horns Richard Steggall and Jane Hanna quietly lowered the curtain, then took the lead in the ‘hunting’ minuet that seems to anticipate Weber’s characteristic.
Then the strings took over in the sometimes Haydnesque though essentially Italianate finale, constantly demanding their endurance. Gibbons’ wise touches wrapped up the minute with no last-minute slowdown and dismissed this final repeat, which tends to overstay welcome and gild the lily.
Details of the WSO Spring Mini-Season are here (Sundays, 2.45pm, Assembly Hall – tickets 01903 206206 or at wtam.uk):
March 13, “Mainly Mozart”: Elgar, Serenade for strings; Mozart, Concerto for flute and harp in C K299 (Monica McCarron, flute; Elizabeth Green, harp); Adagio & Fugue in C minor K546; Haydn, Symphony No. 36 in Eb; Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 6 in B flat K238 (Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, piano). Extremely rare opportunity to hear the last two works.
April 24 “Romantic Classics”: Beethoven, Overture “Egmont”; Bruch, Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor (Christian Garajner de Sa, violin); Mendelssohn, Symphony No. 4 in ‘Italian’ A. NB: veteran guest conductor, Hilary Davan Wetto (associate conductor with London Mozart Players; recordings with RPO, LPO). Rising star violinist, 27 years old, Luso-Italian, poetic and explosive; exclusive pupil of Tasmin Little, long term of Maurice Hasson.
May 22 “Jubilations of May”: Elgar, imperial march; Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor (Dinara Klinton, piano); Rossini, Overture ‘William Tell’; Dvorak, Symphony No 8 in G. Klinton originally planned for this when the pandemic lockdown began.