New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival Winds Down

United StatesUnited States  Mostly Mozart (6): Mozart Festival Orchestra, Jérémie Rhorer (Conductor), Bertrand Chamayou (Piano), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 23.8.2011 (SSM)

Haydn:  Symphony No. 22 in E-flat major (“The Philosopher”)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, K. 414
Mozart:  Symphony No. 29 in A major, K.201

 As creative and talented as he was, Haydn was still expected to report to work daily and do his job, which was to write and perform music. We recognize Haydn as a genius, but to the Esterhazies, for whom he worked most of his life, he was a servant, a mere artisan. (Bach too thought of himself as an artisan, teaching his children how to play and compose music as another father of the time might teach his sons to be blacksmiths.) Haydn’s hundred-plus symphonies certainly equal a mere mortal’s lifetime effort. But there are also over 400 songs, 130 trios for baryton (a cello-shaped instrument favored and played by the Prince), 25 operas, 70 string quartets, and more. His level of consistency is astonishing: the difference between his weakest music – probably the music he wrote for the Lire Organizzate (an instrument related to the hurdy-gurdy) – and his greatest, works on the level of “The Creation,” is very small. By comparison, Beethoven’s compositions went from the bombastic Wellington’s Symphony to the Ninth, a significant difference in quality.

All this is said in preparation for reviewing last night’s performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 22. There have certainly been more spirited performances of this and other symphonies from the early to middle period of Haydn’s life. Conductor Jérémie Rhorer was more than enthusiastic, but the orchestra responded lethargically. This could have been a result of weeks of rehearsing unfamiliar or not commonly played pieces with different conductors, lack of sufficient rehearsal time, poor rapport between the conductor and the orchestra or a combination of any or all of these reasons. The difficult, spirited and well-played opening hunting calls from the doubled French and English horns gave a false promise that the rest of the symphony would be equally energetic. For me, this symphony is not top Haydn like the middle-period Sturm und Drang symphonies, but the quality of all the symphonies is so consistent that it would be hard not to enjoy any played reasonably well.

Looking at the dates of the two Mozart compositions in the play bill, it might seem surprising that his twelfth piano concerto was written eight years after his twenty-ninth symphony, but Mozart had written just eight concerti for piano before he hit his stride with the ninth. Mozart took the piano concerto seriously, and he felt uncomfortable at a young age with tackling its demands. It wasn’t until he befriended the so-called “London Bach,” Johann Christian Bach, that Mozart wrote his piano concerti numbers three through five (one and two were juvenilia), which were based on transcriptions of J.C. Bach’s piano sonatas.

Bertrand Chamayou has been widely recognized for his achievement in having performed Liszt’s Transcendental Études more than forty times between 2003 and 2005. Of course, playing Mozart requires a very different sensibility and I can’t be sure that Chamayou has it, but it was a satisfying performance nonetheless. I do question the solidarity of soloist and orchestra, which was once or twice off their mark but mostly on it and provided overall a sensitive accompaniment.

Although the first movement was fine, I thought the second movement, played more Adagio than the marked tempo of Andante, sagged. The final movement, a Rondo, is filled with brilliant themes, each with material enough for a movement in itself. Unusually, Mozart wrote cadenzas for all three movements of this concerto, and Chamayou handled them admirably without unnecessary flash or bravura.

Many of Mozart’s early symphonies are really divertimenti, music to be diverted by and not listened to, and they are nowhere near the level of Haydn’s early works. Only in No. 25 in G minor did Mozart really start exploring the possibilities of the genre. From then on most of his symphonies are models of the form as it began its long development through the nineteenth century.

The opening Allegro moderato of No. 29 has a fire not found in earlier symphonies. Reflecting a depth of feeling and poignancy beyond Mozart’s years, the Andante second movement is emblematic of the Mozart we can’t resist. A minuet follows with the kind of intensity associated with the Scherzo, a form soon to join the Minuet as an alternative for the third movement of a symphony. (Beethoven’s Scherzi in his later symphonies were anything but one-two-three dances.) The final movement has a complexity and richness that carries us through to a coda that always catches the listener by surprise. The recurring cadence leads back to the main theme so many times that when the symphony does conclude, it takes a few seconds to realize that it’s over. Rhorer did a fine job with this work, justly pacing each movement and bringing out voices that you wouldn’t normally hear unless it were played by a smaller group on original instruments.

The concert was pleasant enough overall but often lackluster, a quality not uncommon towards the end of a long festival, particularly one as intense, demanding and high-quality as this year’s Mostly Mozart.

Stan Metzger

This series continues at LincolnCenter through August 27.  See Mostly Mozart Festival.