The Magic of Mozart
Ave Verum Corpus
Piano Concerto No. 21
Assembly Hall, Tunbridge Wells, 26th March 2006
In a “star is born” sequence, more appropriate to Hollywood than to Royal Tunbridge Wells, a rehearsal pianist took over as soloist to steal the show with a dazzling performance of a Mozart piano concerto, in the middle of a recent choral concert in the Assembly Hall.
To present a programme of choral music by Mozart to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth is a fairly obvious idea. To include a piano concerto in such a programme may be regarded as unorthodox and enterprising. But to invite your rehearsal pianist to take the solo part is nothing less than brilliant – provided, that is, his name is Anthony Zerpa-Falcon.
Under their conductor Richard Jenkinson, the Royal Tunbridge Wells Choral Society and a well-balanced group of soloists – Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano), Catrin Johnsson (mezzo-soprano), Philip Salmon (tenor) and Andrew Rupp (baritone) – started with a somewhat tentative performance of the Vesperae solennes de confessore, K339. This is a work which, with its sharply contrasting episodes and changes of key, needs more commitment than in fact it received. Not even the soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers in the Laudate Dominum, a section sometimes performed on its own, could bring the music fully to life, and I started to wonder if, perhaps, it had not been given sufficient time in rehearsal.
But such gloomy thoughts were soon dispelled, like clouds on a bright spring day, with the way in which the choir sang Mozart’s sublime setting of the motet Ave, verum corpus, K618. Originally composed not for chorus but for four solo voices, strings and organ, it has become one of the Choral Society’s set pieces which they perform with a radiant sonority and sense of control – a tribute to Richard Jenkinson’s choral training.
There followed a lightening of the atmosphere and some amusement in the stalls as the hydraulic platform slowly raised the Steinway piano, for all the world like a cinema organ of the 1930s, from the bowels of the Assembly Hall to the much higher level of the stage. Barbara Maw’s single A natural to tune the orchestra drew a trickle of applause (although it must be said that she played it very well), and we then settled down to await the arrival of the conductor and the pianist Anthony Zerpa-Falcon, suddenly elevated from his place in the orchestra as organ continuo to become the instrumental soloist of the day.
The opening bars of the C major concerto, K467, were a shock: “surely too fast,” I thought. Then came the piano entry: brilliantly clear and precise, wonderfully elegant and assured. Only later did I learn that it was Anthony who set the tempo with the agreement of the conductor, and he was absolutely right to do so. This was a young man´s interpretation, full of verve, drive and confidence, in which there was no risk of the orchestra supporting the soloist in the plodding manner we hear all too often in this work. In their performance all members of the orchestra matched the delicacy and enthusiasm of Anthony Zerpa-Falcon, and provided a perfect balance to his pianism.
There is a point to make here. Those of us blessed with two good ears hear everything in stereo, left and right. Most of the time we are not even conscious of this. We don´t have to do anything about it – it´s just the way the whole thing works. But at this concert the instruments were by chance arranged in a very unusual way, with the piano well above the orchestra. So there was a sense of vertical up and down in the perceived sound as well as horizontal side to side. I found the experience quite fascinating – but perhaps I have spent too much of my time in the recording business!
To return to the concerto and Anthony Zerpa-Falcon, whose whole approach to the work avoided any risk of sentimentality in the gorgeous (but now notorious) andante. The finale skittered along irresistibly and, like the first movement, included a short but brilliant cadenza by the celebrated pianist and Mozart scholar Géza Anda.
This was a performance to treasure by a name to remember – rarely have I head such waves of applause in the Assembly Hall or anywhere else for that matter. Anthony Zerpa-Falcon will surely go far.
After the interval two choral pieces remained. The Exsultate, jubilate K165 with its celebrated Alleluia, beautifully sung by Lesley-Jane Rogers, followed by probably the most loved of all Mozart´s masses, the so-called “Coronation Mass” in C major, K317. This joyous work is scored in such a way that the solo singers are constantly to be heard – as a quartet, in pairs or in solo lines that contrast dramatically with the choir as a whole. It was given a splendidly coherent performance to remind us that this was, after all, a choral concert, and a very good one at that.
© Robert Hardcastle