MM 1:Mostly Mozart Festival Opens with…Mozart

United StatesUnited States MM 1: Mostly Mozart Opening Night. Nelson Freire (piano), Lawrence Brownlee, (tenor), Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Louis Langrée (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 31.7.2012 (SSM)

Mozart: Overture to La clemenza di Tito, K.621
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466
Misero! o sogno…Aura che intorni spiri, K.431
Un’ aura amorosa, from Così fan tutte, K.588
Symphony No. 38 in D major, K.504 (“Prague”)

The Mostly Mozart Festival opened its 46th season with an all-Mozart program directed by conductor Louis Langrée. This Festival, like any other long-lived series, has had its individual as well as overall ups and downs. During the middle years, as its popularity waned, the Festival tried to attract a new audience by expanding its composer list, so that by 1997 the Mostly (Not) Mozart schedule consisted of no less than 32 composers. A strike cancelled most of the 2002 season. Mr. Langrée made his debut as conductor in 2003 and congratulations are due to him for keeping Mozart in the forefront.

If this opening concert is any indication of what lies ahead in both selection and performance, we are in for a pleasant summer. I was familiar with Nelson Freire in the 1970s, but seem to have lost sight of him until his magical recordings of the Brahms piano concerti in 2006 made me realize what a great pianist he was and is. I think of him along with Radu Lapu, another pianist who seemed to drop out of view only to return to the concert hall more of a master of the instrument than when he was young virtuoso.

What approach can one take to Mozart’s D minor concerto that hasn’t been taken before. For one thing, one can address it without the preconception that because it is in D minor, the key of Mozart’s Requiem and much of Don Giovanni, it must be tragic. Langrée’s opening measures were certainly dramatic enough, with heavily accentuated syncopations and sudden dynamic changes from p to f But once the soloist came in with new motifs not played before, he put his stamp on the music, declaring it more dramma giocoso than seria. He was amazingly consistent in style and conception, even choosing the briefest of cadenzas in the first and last movements, as if to say “This poetic work need not be unhinged by crescendos, banging chords and liberal use of rubati. Its poetry will speak for itself.” As gently as this piano concerto was played, there was no doubting that Freire had a strong overall concept of how he wanted it to be heard by the audience. Indeed this was as crisp, confident and summery an interpretation as I’ve ever heard. Perhaps he has a different concept of the work when he plays it in winter…

The enthusiasm of the orchestra and conductor that accompanied the pianist was a continuation of the spirited reading of the concert’s opening work: the overture to Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito. Although the completion of La clemenza di Tito was definitely after Die Zauberflöte, it is more than likely that specific parts of each score were written at the same time. (See Christoph Wolff’s recently published iconoclastic book about Mozart’s final years, Mozart at the Gateway to his Fortune.) One can hear a number of exact phrases straight out of the earlier work.

To give the audience a taste of the vocal aspect of Mozart’s genius, Langrée programmed two arias for tenor, one a concert aria, the second an aria from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. Lawrence Brownlee started off a little weakly in the opening aria, Misero! o sogno…Aura che intorni spiri. I would question why this specific aria was chosen out of dozens of other opera and concert arias: it is mostly a recitativo accompagnato which gives the tenor little to work with until the very end. Brownlee handled the more well-known aria Un’ aura amorosa from Cosi fan tutte with a deep, warm, almost baritone coloring that showed no element of strain and reached clearly to the back of the theater

The final work on the program, Mozart’s Prague Symphony, received a sparkling interpretation that sounded much larger than one would expect from the number of musicians on stage. The bleachers placed in back and to the sides of the orchestra and the acoustic pods hanging from the top of the theater are the traditional changes to the venue when this festival occurs; and, as in the past, takes away some of the hollow overtones that often fill the theater during its regular season.

Stan Metzger