An Impressive Return for a Former Principal Horn

United StatesUnited States Haydn and Mozart: Maria Mannisto (soprano), John Cerminaro (horn), Seattle Symphony, Christian Knapp (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 2.5.2013 (BJ)

Haydn: Mass in B-flat major, Hob. XXII:7, “Kleine Orgelmesse”
Mozart: Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, K. 412
Haydn: Symphony No. 98 in B-flat major. Hob. I:98

Though the audience was regrettably sparse, there was obvious warmth in the welcome that greeted former principal horn John Cerminaro when, two years after leaving the Seattle Symphony, he returned as soloist in Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 1. Following common practice these days, the concerto was played in E-flat major rather than its original key of D major, and the Andante from the composer’s Horn Quintet did duty for slow movement.

There are, to be sure, more spectacular horn players in the world, but it is hard to think of one who comes close to matching the profound inward poetry that Cerminaro commands. He played this concerto with a marvelous serenity, reflecting the confident awareness that neither he nor Mozart had anything to prove; mastery, in their respective spheres, was simply taken for granted. And however he may have been spending his time since 2011, it’s clear that he has not neglected the maintenance of his technique, which remains as smooth, secure, and sweet-toned as ever.

Mozart was preceded and followed on the program by his dear friend Haydn. The latter’s “Little Organ Mass” is a graceful rather than deeply spiritual piece, and the performance conducted by Christian Knapp was very much in that vein. There was good choral and somewhat ordinary orchestral work, and Joseph Adam contributed a nicely pointed organ solo. Soprano soloist Maria Mannisto sang agreeably, with clean tone and sympathetic phrasing. But I found myself, in the concerto that followed, hoping that she might be listening to Cerminaro, for she could have gleaned from him a vital lesson in keeping a phrase alive all the way through, even when it ends in a low register—too often she allowed the line to trail away into near-inaudibility.

It was in Haydn’s great 98th Symphony, the work that more than any other reveals the influence on Haydn of his younger contemporary, that problems in Knapp’s conducting technique became most damaging. He performed the dancing minuet movement, and indeed the whole symphony, to his own choreography. A balletic podium manner need not be a bad thing, as anyone who ever saw Leonard Bernstein conduct will know. But Knapp seems to be just as prone now as in some of his earlier performances here to what Sir Adrian Boult used to call “the Grecian vase effect.” It was notable that almost all the best moments in this performance came when he momentarily released his left hand from the otiose pursuit of mirroring his right, and used it instead to elicit a specific expressive or textural point from the orchestra.

With several principal players away on operatic duty, their guest replacements played well, but orchestral textures throughout the evening were seriously lacking in the resonance and propulsive power that can only come from taking care to balance the lower strings sufficiently strongly in relation to the violins. There was a pervasive thinness about the sound that robbed Haydn’s—and Mozart’s—often brilliantly athletic music of much of its vigor, reducing organic drive to nothing more than motoric energy. Knapp has often shown himself to be a conductor of considerable talent. But that talent will only have full play if he can eradicate such weaknesses.

Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.