Mostly Mozart Opening Concert: Flourishing Again

 United StatesUnited States Mostly Mozart (1) Beethoven, Mozart: Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Jean-Efflam, Bavouzet (piano), Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Louis Langrée (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, 30.7.2013 (SSM)

Beethoven: Overture to Coriolan
Mozart: Ch’io mi scordi di te…Non temer, amato bene
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major
Mozart: Parto, Parto, ma tu ben mio, from La clemenza di Tito
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major

Over its 47 years the Mostly Mozart Festival has had periods when it has flourished and periods when it has languished. Luckily, we seem to be in an upswing. The original excitement in 1966 of having summer weeks filled with Mozart, whose music was thought to be illimitable, gradually died out and gave way to the necessary inclusion of Haydn, then Haydn and Schubert, and then composers as diverse as Monteverdi, Dvořàk, Satie, and Stravinsky. The conductors over the years have included Neville Marriner, Edo de Waart, Christopher Hogwood and, since 2002, Louis Langrée as both conductor and music director. Having one conductor for most of the Festival has improved the orchestra’s performances considerably: they do not have to deal with a succession of differing maestros, each with his own way of doing things.

This year’s Mostly Mozart Festival focuses on Beethoven, a decidedly more fruitful subject than last year’s exploration of the influence of bird songs on musical creation. The formatting of this year’s opening night’s program closely followed last year’s with an overture, two Mozart arias, a piano concerto and a symphony. This eclectic array of differing forms provided a good introduction to the works of the two composers who will dominate the Festival. However, the opening concert made no attempt to select works that might reflect Mozart’s influence on Beethoven. The latter’s early piano concerti or symphonies would be more reflective of Mozart’s style than the Piano Concerto No. 4 or the Symphony No. 7.

Beethoven’s dramatic overture to Coriolanus (a work by his contemporary, the playwright Heinrich Collin, not Shakespeare’s version) was given a tightly controlled reading, closer in spirit to performances by Harnoncourt or Goodman than Reiner or Karajan. One may miss the latter two’s massive chords that come from a full symphony orchestra with the tympani’s booms echoing and reverberating through the hall, completely filling its sound space. But what we did get in this performance was clarity of both the inner and outer lines and the difficult-to-achieve balancing between the strings and the winds. The work’s coda was particularly effective with its delicate sempre più piano followed by the three pizzicato notes that end the work.

Mozart’s Ch’io mi scordi di te..Non temer, amato bene is perhaps the biggest gem in the collection of his under-appreciated concert arias. Written for soprano, piano and orchestra, it has one of those magical musical moments where we are surprised to have our expectations broken. Here, the vocalist, who would normally follow the recitative with an aria, comes in only after the piano plays the lilting opening theme. Alice Coote effortlessly delivered her warm, mezzo voice to the back of the theater. In the second half of the program Ms. Coote came back to sing Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio from Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito. In his final years Mozart was enamored of the recently introduced clarinet, and he used it here to accompany the mezzo’s vocal line. Again, Ms. Coote gave a fine rendition of one of Mozart’s last works.

Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto was done here with a light and lyrical hand by the French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, a relaxed and delightfully summery performance. One need only look at the great French interpreters of Beethoven such as Robert Casadesus, Yves Nat or Alfred Cortot to appreciate Bavouzet’s particular manner of performance: he played without overly dramatic gestures and was elegant without being fussy. Langrée understood fully what was required of him and the orchestra. To my surprise, I applauded spontaneously along with the most of the audience after the final notes of the concerto’s compelling first movement. The brief, recitative-style second movement with its loud orchestral retorts to the piano’s soft questions segues to the final movement.

The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra gave a vibrant, kinetic performance of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. It was clear that the orchestra  knew the work well enough for them to focus on Langrée and his interpretation rather than concentrating on the scores in front of them. Langrée kept a tight grip on the instrumentalists and, as a result, they gave a clear, forceful reading: a spectacular finish to an all-round superb evening.

Stan Metzger