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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Concert Review: Beethoven Takes Over

Opening night of Mostly Mozart, 2013.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet ponders the future of commuter rail.
Photo by Guy Vivien © 2011 Verbier Festival
Attending the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra's first subscription concert of the 2013 summer season, one would think that this venerable arts festival's main focus this year was on the works of Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven was everywhere on this program, with three major works by the thunderer from Bonn bracketing two smaller arias by Salzburg's favorite composer. This focus on Beethoven will continue throughout this year's Festival, as major artists engage with five of the symphonies over the course of the next month.

The Festival Orchestra sounded invigorated in the opening Coriolan Overture, playing this muscular curtain-raiser with crisp authority under the baton of music director Louis Langrée. In the altered acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall (the Festival uses a specially constructed stage that thrusts out into the middle of the auditorium) the strings and winds sounded clear and focused, the brass less so. The quiet close of the overture served as orchestral support for a ringing cell phone somewhere in the orchestra seats.

The Orchestra was then joined by the evening's two soloists: mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet to play the concert aria "Ch’io mi scordi di te...Non temer, amato been." (They did this after another chiming cell phone in the auditorium had been silenced.) This work was conceived as a duet for the pianist and singer over orchestral accompaniment, with the piano part representing the vocal line to be taken by Mozart himself. Ms. Coote demonstrated why she is in-demand as an international interpreter of classical and baroque repertoire, singing with rich tone and inflection through the stanzas and vocal ornamentation that followed.

It was up to Mr. Bavouzet to begin the next piece, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. He played the opening phrases with an almost casual hesitation, fooling the listener into thinking the piece hadn't really started. Once the orchestra came in, his playing had a liquid ease, although every note in the solo part was clearly articulated. This requires a firm and accurate touch from the soloist. The soft central movement (almost a recitative for piano and strings) led directly into the Rondo, as conductor and soloist worked together to bring the work home, creating a sense of joy and serenity with each repetition of the central theme.

The opening of the second half of the evening featured Ms. Coote, singing "Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio" Sesto's big aria from La Clemenza di Tito, the opera that Mozart dashed off in the last year of his life. Tito has a mixed reputation when placed next to the big Mozart comedies of the composer's last years Ms. Coote poured herself into the part of the passionate Sesto, singing some of Mozart's tenderest love music over Mr. Langree's sure accompaniment. Her delivery of the word "Guardami" ("Look at me") contained multiple emotions and meanings, compressing Sesto's entire plight into just three syllables of sound.

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony has enjoyed a renaissance with listeners in recent years thanks to the appearance of the second movement (Larghetto) in the Oscar-winning film The King's Speech.  Mr. Langrée led a balanced and yet dramatic account, establishing an air of mystery to the slow opening of the first movement before biting into the joyful dance figure that ranks among Beethoven's most inspiring opening themes. The Larghetto followed, played at a steady, inexorable pace. Much beauty was to be found in the little fugal section that comes in the middle of this movement, with Mr. Langrée skillfully separating the distinct orchestral lines.

After this heavyweight slow movement, the second half of this symphony can seem like an afterthought. That didn't happen here. The Scherzo had inflection and bite, with Mr. Langrée bringing out the wit in the trio sections that seem to reverse the momentum of the orchestra, mustering energy for another mad whirl of dance. The final Allegro Molto was a mad, exuberant dance, one of Beethoven's giddiest fits of orchestral mirth played with genuine joy and respect for this extraordinary score.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.