Mozart’s “A Little Night Music” at New York’s Lincoln Center

 United StatesUnited States  Mostly Mozart Festival (7):  Jennifer Koh (violin), Shai Wosner (piano), Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, Lincoln Center, NY, 24-08-2011 (SSM)


Sonata in E-flat major, K.481
Sonata in C major, K.303
Sonata in B-flat major, K.454

The last time I was in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse atLincolnCenter, a small space that holds about 180 people, it was to hear Sir Roger Norrington talk about the concert he would be performing that evening devoted to C.P.E. Bach. The chairs were arranged in rows facing a lectern. To the audience’s surprise, Sir Roger walked in wearing sweatpants and a C.P.E. Bach t-shirt which set the casual tone.

This was not how the venue was arranged for last night’s recital. As you arrived, you were offered a glass of wine and ushered to a table in a room set up as if it were a cocktail lounge. This “Little Night Music” was “little” because it lasted about an hour, and “night music” because it started at10:30 PM. The audience was a mix of old and young, and it seemed just the right place to impress a date with how sophisticated and sensitive you are.

Mozart’s violin sonatas are some of his earliest works. His Op. 2 and 3 of 1764 were written when he was eight. They and many of their successors were really sonatas for keyboard with violin obbligato (obbligato being an odd word that can mean its opposite as in this case, “not required”). But by the time the two later sonatas played here were written, each part  shared the stage equally. It wasn’t until Beethoven wrote his middle period violin sonatas that the form truly became the violin sonata we know today.

Those lucky enough to sit at a table near the raised platform where this chamber music recital was performed were given the rare opportunity to experience the kind of closeness Mozart’s audience had in his day. Jennifer Koh played to perfection and her accompanist on the piano, Shai Wosner, played immaculately. Both were sensitive to the dynamics of their instruments so that when the pianist brought out an important line, Ms. Koh would stand back and turn down her volume. Her 1727 Stradivarius, warm and rich in tone, seemed to play itself. Koh is known for her strength and fire, but she really only exhibited that once, in the coda to the Sonata K.454.

The first piece played was the Sonata K.481. At the beginning of the development section and at the coda at the end of the first movement Mozart introduces the four-note theme that he would use in the finale of his last symphony, the “Jupiter.” The second movement was played with an achingly beautiful tenderness. The jaunty third movement ended cheerily after six variations.

The Sonata K.303 opens unusually with an Adagio of great expressiveness, leading right into an Allegro molto. The opening Adagio is repeated and the movement ends with a return to the Allegro molto. The sonata’s second movement is Tempo di Menuetto, not a true Minuet which would have a middle trio section, but paced as if it were one. Although the violin is far from just an accompaniment here, the real work is given to the pianist, who handled the difficult passages with  ease.

Another poignant theme opens the last work on the program, the Sonata K.454. This Largo lasts barely two minutes, before it races into a lively Allegro, again with long runs on the piano. The Andante, lovely as it is, may have been slowed down a little too much resulting in an Adagio played with just too much expressiveness. The final movement ends with a quick showpiece for the violinist that made the listener want to stay and hear more even as midnight approached.

Stan Metzger