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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Concert Review: Rolling Doubles

Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis at Mostly Mozart.
Violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Steven Isserlis team up again at Mostly Mozart.
Photo courtesy Linfoln Center/Mostly Mozart.
Tuesday night's concert at Mostly Mozart, conducted by Andrew Mainze and featuring an all-star tandem of soloists featured a distinct absence of music by Mozart. Rather, the Festival Orchestra turned its talents to Brahms, Bach and Mendelssohn. The program was well chosen, bringing together three unusual and infrequently layer pieces together. Credit for this must go to the scholarly Mr. Mainze, whose cool-headed, cerebral approach to music-making has four him at the helm of the Academy of Ancient Music and the English Concert.


The soloists, violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Steven Isserlis, were featured in Brahms’ Double Concerto, a late work from that composer and one that remains among his least often programmed major pieces. Mr. Bell and Mr. Isserlis were both bold and harmonious in their opening thematic statements, a friendly dialogue for instruments that turns into a good-humor end debate and finally a fiery argument. However, the slow, careful tempo chosen by Mr. Mainze robbed this movement  of the forward momentum this music calls for. Mr. Bell supplied his own cadenzas, his instrument breaking free intermittently like the sun peering out behind the clouds.

The central slow movement was marginally better, rising from lethargy to provide a rolling carpet of sound for cello and violin to dance handsomely. The fast finale showed great improvement, even playfulness from the conductor as he led the two soloists and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra through a series of rustic dances. Here the two,soloists were able to fly free at last, battling with their bows against the surging, marching theme which brings this unusual concerto to a close.

It was followed by an unusual and extended encore. By way of preface, Mr. Bell explained that they would play the slow movement only of Robert Schumann's underappreciated Violin Concerto with an added “concert ending” from the hand of Benjamin Britten. The results, with Mr, Bell in the solo part and Mr, Isserlis as a member of the tutti were sublime, a contemplative, slow-rolling movement that makes an excellent argument for performing this concerto more frequently in its entirety.

The second half opened with the final three fugues from Bach’s Art of the Fugue, including the last, unfinished one based on the letters (B-flat, A-natural, C, B-natural, which is "H" in German notation) of the composer’s name. Mr. Mainze revealed that the Bach would be played in conjunction with the Mendelssohn Reformation Symphony, to show the audience how Mendelssohn's musical thought (either consciously or unconsciously) picked up where Bach's left off.

The Mostly Mozart players seemed to relish playing this Contrapunctus, giving Mr. Mainze their very best tone quality and mos tau lime phrasing in the slow opening movement. The quicker central one put the focus on the nimble capering of the woodwind a, and the horns played the signature B-A-C-H theme with moment when the work cut off mid-phrase legend has it that that’s the moment when Bach collapsed at his desk while working on the piece) hung in the air, a dramatic moment.

The Reformation Symphony (Mendelssohn's Fifth) incorporates both the Dreaden Amen (heard also in Wagner) and the Lutheran hymn “Ein Feste Burg". For this performance, Mr. Mainze chose the longer, unrevised version of the score, which includes a long cadenza for solo and duo flute at the end of the third movement: supposedly a portrait  of Luther himself composing that hymn. It proved a sublime choice, as the Mostly Mozart players rewarded the audience with a powerful and sublime performance of this underrated symphony.

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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.