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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Concert Review: Double Reeds and Souls in Need

Matthias Goerne at Mostly Mozart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Matthias Goerne appeared at Mostly Mozart this week.
Photo by Marco Borggreve © harmonia mundi

The Mostly Mozart Festival took a serious turn on Wednesday night with a program focusing on the twin ideas of loss and death. The program marked the return of music director Louis Langrée to the helm of the Festival Orchestra, with a program that started and ended with Mozart symphonies, flanking vocal works by Bach and Schubert. With special guest Matthias Goerne singing the vocal works on the program, this was an example of what this Festival does very well indeed, hewing close to its core composer and supplementing the Mozart catalogue with works that came before and after.

The concert started with the Symphony No. 25 in G minor, written by Mozart when he was just 17. This work represents the full flowering of Mozart as a symphony composer, with its instantly memorable and tragic beginning that was chosen by director Milos Forman for the opening suicide scene of his film Amadeus. This is a lithe and powerful symphony, an expression of new ideas in an unusual key and it was given bite and plenty of musical attack by an energized-sounding orchestra. The winds have been playing well all month and this was no exception to that, with very strong work from oboist Matthew Dine.

One tends to associate Matthias Goerne with the role of Wozzeck, the witless and homicidal soldier at the center of Berg's opera of the same name. So it was almost a relief to see the singer stroll onto the Avery Fisher Hall stage, looking relaxed in a black jacket and an open shirt. Accompanied by virtuoso oboist Randall Ellis, Mr. Goerne brought intensity to Ich habe genug ("I have waited"), the Bach cantata (BWV. 82) for voice and small orchestra that takes a considered view of one's path to the afterlife. Mr. Goerne sang the arias with appropriately solemn tone caressing each word of the text and injecting meaning into the resigned recitatives that formed a sort of bridge to an idealized view of the next world.

The second half of the concert featured Mr. Goerne singing three lieder by Franz Peter Schubert, presented here in orchestrations by the composers Alexander Schmalcz and Max Reger. The first of these was An Sylvia, a German-language setting of a passage from Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona that featured romantic yearning and a sense of playfulness in Mr. Goerne's interpretation. That same emotion was present in the sunny Alinde, the lilting tale of a young man who goes searching for his beloved, asking a series of tradesmen for her whereabouts before joining her in a blissful union. Mr. Langrée supplied the waltzing, plucking orchestra in one of these stories that for once, ends happily for all parties involved.

No such happiness comes in Erlkönig ("The Erl King"), Goethe's tale of a father and son hunted by an otherworldly fairy spirit with designs on the boy. The gallop of hooves and whistling wind is normally portrayed by a fleet-fingered pianist, but the Reger orchestration lent these events a harrowing post-Wagnerian power. Indeed, one thought of Siegmund fleeing through the forest at the start of Die Walküre. Mr. Goerne responded to the dense orchestration by singing the three dramatic parts of this lied with more volume and force than usual, but that did nothing to diminish the power of this "king" among German art songs.

Mozart's Symphony No. 40 (yes it's also in G minor!)  is at once one of his most popular and most recognizable works. ("Ohhh I like this one" growled the bead-decked woman sitting behind and to my right.) And yet, the listner may not realize that it is a dense and fruitful example of the composer at his most radical, using the symphonic format to forge new ideas that would be crucial in the development of this form in the century to come. For their part, Mr. Langrée and his forces played this symphony with gusto and respect for its innovative nature. Once more, the woodwinds were firmly in the lead.


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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.