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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Concert Review: The Bucolic Beethoven

It's mostly--make that all Beethoven as Mostly Mozart continues.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Emanuel Ax. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco for EmanuelAx.com and Sony Classical.
The second concert series of this year's Mostly Mozart Festival showed total focus on Ludwig van Beethoven, presenting a program that consisted exclusively of that composer's work. On Friday night, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra played Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Sixth Symphony, representing two cheerful highlights from this popular composer's vast catalogue.

There are few better Beethoven interpreters than Emanuel Ax. Here, the genial New York-based pianist offered his interpretation of the B Concerto, one of the sunniest early Beethoven works and incidentally, the earliest complete example of Beethoven writing in this genre. (The Concerto No. 1 was written later, but published first. Sketches exist for an incomplete  Concerto No. 0, but that's another blog post.)

This concerto follows the Mozart model with a lengthy opening passage before the entry of the solo piano. This was played with weight and conviction under the Festival Orchestra, led by Andrew Manze. When Mr. Ax finally entered, he quickly established his instrument as the musical center of the piece, playing the composer's original cadenzas with wit, sparkle and a serious intent inside the flashes of prestidigitation. The whole of this long movement carried an earthy good humor that shows the influence of Haydn and Mozart on Beethoven's early style.

The long central Adagio allowed Mr. Ax opportunity for lyric expression against a solemn orchestral chorale. This movement was played with a sense of deep, peaceful joy, as the soloist soliloquized against the cellos and basses, with occasional comment from the violins, woodwinds and horn. The kinetic finale, with its right-hand intervals and trills against a bouncing orchestral rhythm allowed Mr. Ax to indulge in stunning flourishes and the playful, athletic variations built from the movement's theme.

Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (his Sixth) is a prototype for how symphonies developed in the 19th century. It has five movements instead of the standard four, and each movement bears a descriptive title chronicling an excursion into the bucolic countryside around Vienna. From the first notes of the first movement ("Cheerful Feelings Upon Arrival in the Country"), Mr. Manze had his musicians play with an air of rusticity, reveling in a coarse violin tone and sprung, folksy rhythms. A clear, limpid texture let previously hidden phrases come to light--the charming little solos for bassoon and double bass, and the easy rhythms that hint at the dance movement that is to follow.

This style prevailed in the slow movement ("Scene by the Brook.") Here it was the ebb and flow of water that predominated, with each "thunk" of the double basses the sound of a boat's oars dipping in the river. The famous bird-calls sounded in the woodwinds, drawing smiles of familiarity from those listeners not rapt under Beethoven's spell.

The Scherzo ("Merry Gathering of Country Folk") featured athletic, energetic playing from thehorns, against chugging, sometimes careening rhythms that sounded as if the players might be indulging in a little of that strong white wine found in Gasthausen outside Vienna. This was compensated for by the flash-and-roll of the Storm (fourth movement) that cleared the drunken dancers away in a whirl of orchestral wind and rain

Unfortunately, these meteorological exertions proved exhausting for the small brass section. The horns were audibly tired at the opening of the Shepherd's Song (fifth movement) that ends the work. The first phrase of the movement was marred by what Vienna players call a fisch, an audible error in the horn line usually caused by tired lips. The performance recovered though, thanks to some superb ensemble work and excellent support from the two other horns.
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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.