Georgian architecture and Jane Austen have, between them, fostered an idea of Bath as a historic centre of civility, which isn’t altogether true. During its heyday, circa 1800, it was England’s own Las Vegas: raunchy, racy, fast. That said, it seems pretty civilised nowadays – especially in November when the annual Bath Mozartfest fills its Assembly Rooms and other venues with the sound of music.
Everything about the Mozartfest speaks quality. Upfront at the opening weekend was the Schubert Ensemble, with a concert so exuberant it was almost danceable, despite the fact that their viola player was on crutches (having fallen off a tractor, as he told me afterwards: musicians these days lead portfolio careers). The danceability of Brahms’s 3rd Piano Quartet is admittedly disputable: Brahms said that he wrote it with a pistol to his head. But it was so immaculately played here that its melancholy smiled. And the accompanying pieces – Haydn, Dvořák – smiled too. Outside, Bath was grey and wet, but in that hall the sun was shining.
It shone less emphatically for the Vertavo String Quartet, who had come to Bath from Norway to play Mozart, Janáček and Beethoven. They lacked the clarity and definition to be first-rate, but they did have personality. And their viola player, in command of both her legs, stood up before each piece to introduce it with a geekish sense of humour: funny in a Scandinavian sort of way.
Also appearing at the Mozartfest was the Hallé Orchestra; and with soloist James Ehnes it performed one of Bruch’s violin concertos – not the No 1 that everybody knows, but No 2, a piece that the conductor Sir Mark Elder insisted was every bit as good as its predecessor, though I think he exaggerates. It doesn’t offer the same opportunities for brilliance as opposed to busyness, and lyrically it’s less abundant. But the shimmering, liquid-silver tone of Ehnes’s playing was delightful. And the Hallé did it justice, in a way they didn’t with the dull account of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony that followed.
Back in London, ENO’s new Lulu, staged by William Kentridge, comes with fabulous design – a riotous collage of images projected onto semi-abstract sets – that camouflages a slow-paced and witless show. Lulu is dark material, but with an element of bedroom farce that needs to be delivered more effectively than Kentridge manages. Mark Wigglesworth, conducting, thrives on the romantic lusciousness of Alban Berg’s score but misses its abrasive rigour. And you have to wonder what caused the ENO to give the title role to Brenda Rae. She acts well, but it’s such a small voice for a big role in a massive auditorium. I couldn’t hear her.