Evoking Curzon in a Mozart Concerto of Admirable Restraint

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Verdi: Sean Chen (piano), Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Nir Kabaretti (conductor), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA. 23.3.2015 (BJ)

Haydn: Overture to Armida
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595
Mendelssohn: Sinfonia No. 10 in B minor
Verdi: String Symphony in E minor (arr. Toscanini from String Quartet)


The greatest performance I ever heard of Mozart’s last piano concerto was also the least spectacular. It was played in London during the Royal Festival Hall’s 1956 celebrations of the composer’s 200th birthday; the soloist was Clifford Curzon, and what was so memorable about it was the mysterious, almost mystical, sense of profound quietude that he found in the music.

 I would not venture to predict whether Sean Chen, the 26-year-old Forida-born soloist in this Philadelphia performance, is destined to develop into a master to rank beside the great Curzon. Sufficient unto the day to observe that he read the character of one of Mozart’s most inward pieces correctly, and did nothing remotely showy. There was no inappropriate or vulgar straining after big effects. His tone was lambent, his phrasing clean, and his handling of dynamics appropriately restrained. Quietude, once again, reigned throughout this meticulously tasteful performance. I confess I did not find in it the profundity of that performance 59 years ago. “Tasteful” can be a two-edged word, for it can carry the implication that more positive qualities are lacking. Whether Chen has them time alone will tell.

 The first half of this concert was, I thought, the better by some margin. Guest conductor Nir Kabaretti led off with a crisp account of the equally crisp and highly enjoyable overture to Haydn’s last Eszterháza opera, Armida, and went on to support his soloist skillfully in the concerto, though one dovetailing between solo and tutti was not quite flawlessly managed. After intermission, both the early Mendelssohn Sinfonia and the so-called String Symphony that Toscanini made out of Verdi’s String Quartet were done with enormous zest and a compelling forward-moving impulse, if rather less than unfailing clarity of articulation.

 Bernard Jacobson

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