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Monday, August 27, 2012

Concert Review: Beethoven Gets Eighty-Sixed

Mass in C closes Mostly Mozart Festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Clarinetist Martin Fröst did not wear
this hat on Saturday night.
Photo from 

The 2012 Mostly Mozart Festival ended on Saturday night with the second of two concerts featuring the composer's Clarinet Concerto with soloist Martin Fröst. The concerto, Mozart's last instrumental work, was paired with Beethoven's Mass in C Op. 86, one of the composer's least performed works. Festival music director Louis Langrée conducted.

Mozart wrote the Clarinet Concerto for soloist Anton Städler in 1791, the year he died. It features the sum tota of his abilities as a composer of passionate music that both charm and provoke. The work places great demands on the soloist, who must also provide a sweet tone that takes advantage of the clarinet's uncanny ability to imitate the human voice.

The autograph of Mozart's score is not available, but the work may have been based on an earlier work that the composer had planned for the bassett horn, a kind of alto claarinet with a disticnctive "angled" body. Mr. Fröst, who may be the first woodwind superstar in music since Heinz Holliger, played the work on an extended "bassett" clarinet (down to low C) to meet the required low notes.

Mr. Fröst provided a sweet, mellifluous tone in the first movement, moving nimbly against Mr. Langrée's nuanced accompaniment. The central slow movement requires a player of considerable ability and breath control, two qualities demonstrated here. The concert ended with the athletic Presto, as the clarinet led the orchestra a merry chase through Mozart's variations. Following a tumultuous reception, the soloist returned for an encore: a arrangement of traditional Klezmer dances assembled by his brother Göran Fröst.

Beethoven's Mass in C has long lingered in shadows cast by the great choral pieces: the Ninth Symphony and the thunderous Missa Solemnis written 15 years later. This Mass is from 1807 and belongs to Beethoven's middle period, but the movements seem Haydn-esque in character and tone. Beethoven takes innovative approaches to everything from the hushed, mystic Kyrie to the unexpectedly serene closing pages of the Agnus Dei. The work displeased its patron: Haydn's old employer, the Duke of Esterházy. The composer stormed out in a rage, and the work was forgotten.

With a cast of fine soloists and the choral support of the Concert Chorale of New York, Mr. Langrée made an excellent case for the work. This was a performance of fresh energy and enthusiasm even at the close of a long festival month. Solo voices included familiar faces from Juilliard: soprano Layla Claire, mezzo Sasha Cooke, tenor Paul Appleby and bass Matthew Rose. They seemed to relish the opportunity to perform a rarity by a famous composer and make it their own. 

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