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The Bath Mozartfest: radiant joy

Mozart family portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

It can often feel in music as though tragedy sets the agenda, valuing the dark and sad as more substantial than the bright and joyful. But true joy can have explosive impact. And a good example is Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, which exploded into the hearts of a packed audience as the closing concert in this year’s Bath Mozartfest.

The venue was Bath Abbey, which is in the throes of renovation just now but still a magnificent space. And this was a magnificent performance by the period band La Nuova Musica, conductor David Bates, with the superb Holst Singers who have some claim to being the most accomplished semi-pro choir in Britain. Technically it was immaculate. But more than this, it wore a radiant smile. It basked in goodwill. It was fun – as The Creation ought to be, given the unadulterated happiness that Haydn feeds into the score.

That it was being done in English added charm, because the tortured 18th-century translation of the text (sanctioned by Haydn) is replete with accidental humour about “cheerful” lions, “tufty groves” and “finny tribes” (that’s fish to you and me). But words aside, there’s an endearing, Day-Glo positivity in Haydn’s telling of the story of creation, fully embracing the divine view that the new-made world is good and cause for celebration. Adam’s fall is relegated to a passing reference. And the score proclaims the simple faith of its composer – as observed by a contemporary who wrote that “at the thought of God his heart leapt for joy, and he could not help his music doing the same”. A happy precedent, you might think.

Also in residence at the Mozartfest was one of my favourite string quartets, the Belcea, playing programmes devoted to “late” works by Beethoven, Bartók, Janáček and Mendelssohn. I’m never sure that “lateness” tells you much as a conceptual term in music, where composers often die young (Mozart and Schubert in their 30s) with no necessary sense that life is drawing to a close.

But received wisdom has it otherwise. And it’s not hard to hear a combination of profound, reflective depth, nostalgia and finality in officially late quartets such as Beethoven’s Opus 130 or Bartók’s 6th – both of which were featured here in Bath.

The Belcea didn’t weigh into these heavy pieces with the muscularity they usually invite: there was no obvious sweat. But there was focused strength in readings that reached deep into the meaning of the music. And the Bartók in particular had class: a tough score but delivered with great style and dignity. You couldn’t call it joyful, but at least it didn’t wallow.