Incisive Scottish and a Triumph for Goode

United StatesUnited States Adès, Mozart, Mendelssohn: Richard Goode (piano), New York Philharmonic, David Zinman (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 5.12.13 (DA)

Adès: Three Studies from Couperin
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 18 in B Flat Major, K. 456
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 ‘Scottish’

Do we need an advocate for Mendelssohn? Who, after all, wants to be a great Mendelssohn conductor, of all things, with the fusty conservatism that that unfairly implies? Who, as I tentatively do now, would own up to a great love of his symphonies?

Mendelssohn’s contribution to music history would be quite enough without his compositions. This, after all, was the man ‘who rediscovered’ the St. Matthew Passion. His music tends to be underrated, whether of itself or as a necessary foil for the great radicals of his day, Liszt and Wagner. However, in this fresh performance of his last symphony (albeit numbered the third), David Zinman and the New York Philharmonic showed that Mendelssohn benefits greatly from incisive playing and a vigorous but restrained sense of direction.

Zinman, now at a very spry 77 years old, has long been renowned as a conductor of clarity, and that was the order of the day here. Key to the performance was a sense of harmonic progress, however predictable that progress might be. A no-nonsense classicism nonetheless looked Schumann and Wagner straight in the eye, and a particularly prominent hearing of the horns pointed to a work fully in the great tradition of German composers, from Weber to Strauss. Zinman took generally quickish tempi, endowing the first movement with a necessary intensity, and although the final movement dragged slightly the architecture of the symphony as a whole came through just enough. While the Philharmonic contributed a sense of interplay unusual for this orchestra, there were a few too many slips, especially in the first violins. Balances occasionally got away from Zinman, with the brass obnoxiously loud in the fourth movement.

No such issues troubled a fine performance of one of Mozart’s more unpredictable piano concertos. If the orchestral contribution did not have the grace, the insatiable lightness of the very greatest performances, it was luminous and keen. Effervescent in the first movement, Zinman drew a somewhat anxious, rather too unveiled sound in the slow. Richard Goode, however, was an unmitigated triumph. He of course has pedigree in Mozart, having recorded eight of the concertos with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra to considerable acclaim. This was not the pearly Mozart one would find elsewhere, nor something as rigorous as one would hear from, say, Maurizio Pollini or, in another way, Daniel Barenboim. It was, however, witty, full of awareness that Mozart must smile even in his darkest moments. There was an unassuming bravura to the cadenzas, matched by an uncommon ability to ape and lead orchestra phrases. Points were made and lines were sung without needing to emphasise them unnecessarily, as so many lesser pianists feel the need.

Thomas Adès’s Three Studies from Couperin came off well too. The studies are effectively a suite of suites’ finales, “Les amusemens,” “Les Tours de Passe-passe,” “L’Âme-en-peine” forming a satisfying trio. Adès filters Couperin’s keyboard works not only through orchestration, but off-putting rhythmic switches and time shifts. The rocking motion of “Les amusemens” echoes through the orchestra, its notes seeming to bounce back as if echoing in the body of a harpsichord dimly remembered through a hushed marimba. The crossed-hands of “Les Tours de Passe-passe” are amusingly treated in a soundworld familiar to anyone who has heard The Tempest, as the piece slowly breaks down into one of Adès’s familiar rhythmic riots. “L’Âme-en-peine” is the real jewel here, though, an unbearably sad song that recalls the string laments of the late Romantics. It’s peculiarly affecting, and if Adès has any talent, it’s for that.

David Allen

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