In an Imperfect World, Mozart Close to Perfection

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Brahms: Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra / Herbert Blomstedt (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 18.2.2017 (BJ)

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.25 in C major K.503
Brahms – Symphony No.3

The first pleasure at this concert came even before the music started: it was good to see that guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt had reseated the orchestra with the violins split to his left and right. And when the Mozart Piano Concerto No.25 began, the interplay between firsts and seconds, spatially emphasized, immediately evidenced how much that classical seating adds to the aural effect – and not only in Mozart’s music, but just as valuably in the works of such composers as Bruckner, Elgar, and Mahler. (Come on, Maestro Nézet-Séguin: what are you waiting for?)

The performance of that Mozart work, which is my favorite among all piano concertos, approached perfection as closely as one is entitled to expect in an imperfect world. Garrick Ohlsson produced pearly tone at all dynamic levels, caressing the keyboard in piano and avoiding any trace of harshness in the biggest forte, as at that wonderful exchange of tutti and solo responsibilities at the beginning of the first movement’s recapitulation. The music, moreover, enhanced by Blomstedt’s realization of the orchestral part, not only achieved immaculate sound but also moved immaculately. This was a performance as good as any I heard by the late Ivan Moravec, and there is in my book no higher compliment than that. We were treated also to an encore in the shape of the Adagio from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata (another Moravec speciality, incidentally), which again magically demonstrated the gentleness Ohlsson can draw from an instrument of theoretically percussive nature.

For the Brahms symphony, Blomstedt – who will celebrate his 90th birthday in July and was slightly injured by a recent fall – conducted sitting down, but revealed no other compromise in his physical activity. No.3 is a symphony that the Philadelphia Orchestra has played to extraordinary effect more than once. Two of the three greatest performances of it that I have ever heard happened here: one was conducted by Nézet-Séguin in 2014, the other by Riccardo Muti in the 1980s – and the third was conducted a further 30 years earlier by Victor de Sabata in London’s Royal Festival Hall.

Blomstedt drew unfailingly committed, indeed passionate, playing from the orchestra. Here, as in the Mozart, associate principals Angela Zator Nelson and David Cramer were strikingly good on timpani and flute, and Richard Woodhams, who had yielded his seat to the excellent Peter Smith in the Mozart, fashioned Brahms’s oboe solos with his customary grace. The full orchestral sound, too, was gorgeously rich. But the performance did not quite emulate the effect of the three instanced above, because the conductor seemed to espouse a textural aim that sometimes subordinated the independence of instrumental lines in Brahms’s characteristically polyphonic textures to a more generalized blend.

As a result, while Jennifer Montone played her important horn solos beautifully, they fell a little short of their potential poetic effect because they were partly covered by other elements in the texture. And in the third and following measures of the symphony, the trombones were allowed such prominence as to make it hard to distinguish the actual theme in the violins – at the repeat and again at the recapitulation, the texture was much clearer, despite the addition of horns and trumpets at the latter point.

Still and all, this was a distinguished interpretation, and together with the Mozart concerto provided a deeply compelling evening in the concert hall.

Bernard Jacobson

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