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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Concert Review: Trip Through Her Wires

Isabelle Faust plays a doubleheader at Mostly Mozart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Isabelle Faust and her Stradivarius, the "Sleeping Beauty."
Photo by Marco Borggreve  © 2010 harmonia mundi.
The violinist Isabelle Faust and her Stradivarius were at the center of two performances on Saturday night at the Mostly Mozart festival. The first featured the German violinist as soloist in Mozart's Turkish Concerto. The second, an intimate gathering at the Stanley Kaplan Penthouse featured two of Bach's solo works for the violin: the Sonata No. 2 and Partita No. 3.

The one-hour concerts (dubbed A Little Night Music by Lincoln Center) are sometimes an afterthought at Mostly Mozart, a festival that focuses around its weekly orchestra offerings and its own Festival Orchestra. But this show, the second set of Bach repertory appearances by Ms. Faust in New York this year, was eagerly anticipated, its tiny, candle-lit tables filled with Bach lovers, their eyes closed in the rapturous contemplation of these miraculous works for just one player.

Ms. Faust played the Bach works on the "Sleeping Beauty", a Stradivarius violin that remained hidden from the public until coming to her in 1996. Using a baroque bow (and modern strings), she drew a flexible, singing tone from the tiny wooden box that was all the more beautiful for its honesty and occasional imperfections. This is an endearing quality of "real-ness" to her playing, an openness and understanding that each musical journey is profound and of the time in which it happens--and that it's always going to be different.

The Sonata No. 2 is the more formidable of these two works, centered around a titanic central Fugue. She worked through each repetition with arduous effort and dedicaton, pulling rewards from the music with each repetition of the central theme. The slow movement that followed was a relief, sweet balm before the ferocity of the final Allegro. This was blazing, edge-of-the seat stuff, navigated with precision and a keen razor's edge.

In the five-movement Partita No. 3 that followed, the opening Allemande laid the ground-work for the complexities to follow. The centerpiece of this suie is the long, slow Sarabande. Her eyes closed as she navigated the phrases, losing herself in the journey but always maintaining the musical thread. They snapped open again in the nimble capering of the Gigue. The Chaconne ended with an alternation of slow ground bass and dizzying variations, with the climactic, rapid-fire phrases met with courage and skill.

The 8pm orchestra concert under the baton of Festival music director Louis Langree featured Mozart's Turkish Concerto, the last of five works in this genre composed in rapid-fire order. This performance was genial, with Ms. Faust engaging in long, arching phrases of great warmth and open-ness. There is a cool precision to her playing, but it is always supported with emotion and warmth. The slow movement was gorgeous and hypnotic, with the long legato phrases delivered cleanly. The final movemnt that followed was exuberant in its display of sheer ability.

This year, the orchestral programming at Mostly Mozart has had a deep, almost obsessive focus on the works of Ludwig van Beethoven. This orchestral concert started with an energetic performance of the overture The Ruins of Athens, a four-minute tone-painting that is a model of concise expression. This served as an effective sort of entrance music before Ms. Faust's performance.

The second half of the evening was a well-received but dull reading of that orchestral war-horse: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Mr. Langree conducted this famous work with vigor, although one could wish for more precise playing from the assembled musicians. The slow movement was strong, and the following march strode forward with authority. But the performance was undermined by some disinterested phrasings in the outer Allegro movements--the sound of skilled players on autopilot.

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