United States Tanglewood  – Mozart Piano Concertos: Lang Lang, Paul Lewis, Garrick Ohlsson (CSa)
Lang Lang (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor)
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.24 in C-minor K.491
Paul Lewis (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Moritz Gnann (conductor)
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.27 in B-flat K.595
Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Juanjo Mena (conductor)
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.9 in E-flat K.271
‘Beethoven, I take twice a week. Haydn, four times, and Mozart every day. Mozart is always adorable!’ declared the elderly Gioachino Rossini, when asked by a friend how the portly composer kept himself fit. Here, at the Tanglewood 2018 Summer Music Festival, located deep in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has been serving its audiences plentiful and salubrious helpings of Mozart. In addition to a host of Mozart’s symphonies, serenades, overtures, chamber works and other delectable dishes on the musical menu, there have been memorable performances of three Mozart piano concertos by soloists and conductors of distinctly different temperament, styles and approach.
The first concert to open the season saw the much-heralded return of flamboyant Chinese-American superstar pianist Lang Lang after a year-long struggle with injury to his left arm, playing Concerto No.24 in C-minor K.491, under the sensitive baton of BSO music director Andris Nelsons. Lang Lang, now 36 years old, with a well-earned reputation for technical wizardry, has been described as ‘the Tiger Woods of classical music before the golfer’s fall from grace’. The young pianist originally planned to play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, but the decision to play Mozart instead was apparently on the advice of his doctor, who recommended something less physically strenuous.
K.491 is distinct in character and orchestral texture from Mozart’s other piano concertos, not least because of the use of a minor key, and an expanded woodwind section, which unusually incorporates both oboes and clarinets. The first movement, a stormy orchestral allegro full of foreboding, is pierced by the clarity and simplicity of the piano’s opening theme, played by Lang on this occasion with a solemn and crystalline beauty. As the musical dialogue between soloist and players developed in emotional intensity and ornamentation, punctuated by a solo cadenza of great complexity, Lang Lang’s brilliant technique was fully engaged, but his initial focus and self-effacement gave way to some distracting mannerisms, seemingly directed at his well-represented fan base. His right hand was frequently raised high above the keyboard and conducted along with maestro Nelsons. Likewise, in the second movement – a searing and most moving larghetto – Lang’s purity of tone competed uncomfortably with his over-emphasised phrasing. There were self-conscious grimaces towards the audience – exaggerated spasms of agony and ecstasy. The final dance-like third movement, which brings the concerto to a joyous close, was a triumph of Lang Lang’s virtuosic skill, which was also evidenced in a delicious encore: Chopin’s Nocturne No.20 in C Sharp Minor. The standing, ululating ovation was unquestionably deserved, but as the white-tuxedoed soloist, one hand clutching his heart, threw a handkerchief into the adoring crowd, one wondered if this was a performance better heard than seen.
The following week saw Paul Lewis, the acclaimed British pianist and former student of Alfred Brendel, give an extraordinarily thoughtful account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.27 in B-flat K.595. On this occasion, the BSO was conducted by their assistant conductor and former Kapellmeister of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Moritz Gnann.
Lewis, his Byronic good looks offset by an austere black silk shirt, came onto the platform with a grave, even slightly ascetic air. His performance was in numerous respects the polar opposite of that offered by Lang Lang the week before. Lewis shunned virtuosic display, as befitted Mozart’s last, least virtuosic and most introspective piano concerto. He provided us instead with what felt like a private recital of this autumnal work, full of warmth and subtlety. The wordless conversation between piano and orchestra which opens the first movement was beautifully judged, and as it developed, Lewis captured perfectly the oscillations of mood as the instruments wove together and moved apart. The second movement, a larghetto of quiet and ineffable beauty, was conveyed by Lewis with a perfect balance of precision and tenderness. Some may have found his approach to the playful final movement with its final bubbling arpeggios a little too clinical, but Lewis ensured that Mozart’s irrepressible humour was not concealed too far beneath the surface.
The celebrated U.S. pianist Garrick Ohlsson made a welcome return to Tanglewood with the BSO under Juanjo Mena, with a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.9 in E-flat, K.271. It included cadenzas in all three movements written by Mozart himself. Completed in 1777, when Mozart was only 21 years old, this concerto preceded K.595 by 18 years. The work is also known by its nickname, the ‘Jeunehomme’, which derives not from the composer and his comparative youth at the time of writing, but from the French touring pianist for whom Mozart wrote this concerto and with whom he was most likely infatuated: Mlle Victoire Jenamy, known professionally as ‘Mlle Jeunnehomme’. The composition, which brings innovation and emotional maturity to concertos of this period written in the classical form, has been described by Alfred Brendel as ‘one of the greatest wonders of the world’.
The 70-year-old Ohlsson, who has played this concerto on many previous occasions, brought a freshness and spontaneity to his performance, as if to a work newly discovered. From the moment he sat at the piano stool, his face wreathed in smiles, he radiated a benign and dignified authority. The first movement in which the orchestra set out the opening theme was soon interrupted by the piano – a novelty until Mozart thought to do so. This was executed by Ohlsson with a combination of clarity and impish wit. In the gorgeous second movement, he brought a heartfelt and achingly sad quality to Mozart’s melancholy song. The supremely well played finale began with a crackerjack presto of sweeps and trills, then gave way to a stately little menuetto in which orchestra and piano danced elegantly together. The movement returned to the Presto, ending as speedily and joyously as it began. Unsurprisingly, an encore was demanded and Ohlsson brought tears to the eyes with an exquisitely turned account of Chopin’s Nocturne in F-sharp major Op.15 No.2. The only regret is that he offered his fans no handkerchief.