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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Concert Review: At Long Last, Mozart

Mostly Mozart 2013 concludes with the last three symphonies.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Louis Langrée led Friday's Mostly Mozart concert.
Photo © 2013 Lincoln Center.
This year at Mostly Mozart, the festival's namesake composer has been largely ignored in favor of an exploration of the major works of Ludwig van Beethoven by the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. (And if you've been reading this blog for the last month, you know that the results have been mixed.) On Friday night, music director Louis Langrée led the final program of this year's Festival, a triptych of Mozart's three final symphonies. The orchestra, for its part, sounded relieved at the prospect of playing an all-Mozart evening.

Nobody's sure why Mozart decided to write these three symphonies (his last) in 1788. These potent and inventive works stand among his finest orchestral creations, with a virtuosity and innovation that can still sound fresh to the ear today. And although they enjoy seperate existence on concert programs around the globe, there is something special, a sense of occasion when hearing these three symphones performed as a unit.

Three solemn chords open the Symphony No. 39 in E, an idea that would show up again in the opening of Die Zauberflöte three years later. Mozart uses them to launch a journey into the 18th century imagination, pushing the limits of the still-novel symphonic form and providing a stern test for any orchestra. The players responded to Mr. Langrée (who worked without a score for the entire performance) contrasting the slow ideas with a bold, heroic main theme. This is one of Mozart's most expansive first movements, and both conductor and players navigated its wide spans and complex development with the utmost precision and beauty of tone.

The Andante that followed was notable for the pin-point orchestral balance and steady rhythmic pulse. The Allegretto that followed, with its Ländler-like rhythms showed the influence of Mozart's Salzburg roots. (The idea of clomping Austrian peasants is common to later Vienna-based symphonists from Beethoven to Bruckner and Mahler.) The skittering, pell-mell finale whipped ahead at speed until hitting Mozart's rhythmic trick, a dead-stop two-thirds of the way through. The final bars pack a density of musical ideas into its short breadth that sparkle and, on closer examination, astonish.

Symphony No. 40 in G minor is the best known of Mozart's symphonies, from its utterly distinctive opening to the somber thematic ideas that follow. Here, Mr. Langrée and his players made this symphony a journey from emotional darkness and turmoil to a bright, almost maniacal glee in the final fast movement. This was a thoroughly convincing performance that never ceased to entertain the ear. This was an uplifting performance.

The Festival Orchestra summoned all of their resources for the Symphony No. 41 in C Major, nicknamed "Jupiter." This is Mozart's most complex orchestral creation, with rhythmic tricks and little solo themes that bounce around the first movement in a bucolic celebration of instrumental ability. The orchestra met these challenges, driven with an unrelenting sense of momentum by Mr. Langrée. The slow movement was eloquent yet also in motion, as conductor and orchestra took time to open and explore the textures of cellos and bassoon.

A quick-step minuet followed, with Mr. Langrée bringing vigor to the stately dance. The finale, a set of theme-and-variations that prophecies the ending of Beethoven's later Eroica Symphony simply exploded out of the players. They responded to the difficulties of this movement by providing the performance with a sense of occasion and the moment, helped by a superb performance from the Festival horns and trumpets. Indeed, this was the right note to end on.

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