Exemplary Mozart Ends New York Philharmonic Subscription Season

United StatesUnited States Mozart: Emanuel Ax (pianist), Jennifer Zetlan (soprano), Jennifer Johnson Cano, (mezzo-soprano), Paul Appleby (tenor), Joshua Hopkins (baritone), New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (director), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 20.6.2012, (SSM)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major, K.482
Mass in C minor, Great, K.427

It may have been that everyone was simply grateful to get indoors to escape the heat from this summer’s first record-breaking day, or that it was the last program of the year in the NYPO’s subscription season, but whatever the reason the musicians gave a nearly faultless performance of two of Mozart’s masterpieces, the E-flat piano concerto K.482 and the Mass in C minor, K.427. The music felt refreshing, and even the Great Mass, while not completely without its serious moments, was unusually (and successfully) light-spirited.

What I wrote about Emanuel Ax’s recent recital holds true with this performance of the Mozart E-flat piano concerto: “His playing was not the type to draw attention to itself: the piano was never pounded, and he never made manifest the fact that there were passages that required substantial prowess.” The concerto opens with emphasis on the winds, as if it were a wind divertimento or one of Haydn’s or Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertantes. The clarinet in this concerto (which debuts here as a member of the Mozart orchestra) joins the flute and bassoon in a subdued but colorful first movement, punctuated by fanfares from the brass. With the gentlest touch Ax made his solo entrance almost as if he were interrupting the orchestra with his playing. Even the cadenza to the first movement was taken by Ax at a leisurely pace and in the least showy manner. Gilbert and company backed up Ax without ever crowding him, and the wind soloists too were given the room they needed to fully paint the pastel-like colors of this lovely concerto.

The second half of the evening was given over to Mozart’s Mass in C minor. It is a somewhat odd work, not written for any specific occasion or sacred event, but meant to fulfill a vow Mozart made when marrying Constanze. Mozart may have realized in mid-creation that giving his wife a Mass was probably not the best way to celebrate a marriage and left it incomplete. At one point he refers to it as a “cantata Mass” which is probably a more apt description of the work. Its “greatness” seems to be in Mozart’s ability to select and manipulate parts of the liturgy and go beyond the structure of the Mass.

The solemn and bleak opening of the Kyrie could substitute for the first movement of the Requiem. The chorus holds back nothing, but after that first Kyrie eleison is sung Mozart has a solo soprano sing a most poignant Christe eleison as the music suddenly changes in color and tone. Jennifer Zetlan pitched every note exactly right, and they came across as clearly as if she were right in front of you. The difficult passage in the first movement that drops to B and then to A below middle C and the jumps back to a high A was done exceptionally well. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano also had a wonderful voice and rendered an ardent version of the solo Laudamus te. Only in the soprano duet, Domine Deus, did both singers sound shrill. Tenor Paul Appleby couldn’t quite sing on the exceptional level of the sopranos. The baritone, Joshua Hopkins, in his small part, helped make this performance stand out.


This all-Mozart program made me reflect on the upcoming Mostly Mozart Festival. With every passing year the Festival, understandably, features less and less Mozart: after 46 years, any audience might tire of hearing the same composer over and over. But if this concert was an indication of what can be done to make Mozart fresh again, maybe it’s time to re-title the festival “Mostly Mozart Redux.”

Stan Metzger