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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Concert Review: The Truth About Wolfgang

Manfred Hönick conducts Mozart's Requiem at the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Manfred Honeck signals victory (or something) at the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2019 The New York Philharmonic.
There is no unfinished work in the canon of Western art music that has more myth, legend and sheer bunkum associated with it than Mozart's Requiem. From the work's (true) mysterious origins to the (false) dramatic stories written around its composition, this work has acquired a life of its own in Western culture. This week at the New York Philharmonic, conductor Manfred Honeck led an all-Mozart program geared toward the music of 1791, the last, turbulent year of Mozart's life.

The concert started with the Piano Concerto No. 27, which is catalogued as the last work in Mozart's remarkable run of compositions for piano and orchestra. (Catalogued, because as James Keller's excellent concert notes point out, this concerto may have been written in 1788, around the same time as the "Coronation" Concerto. However, it was shelved for three years, and was one of the few concertos where Mozart himself did not play the solo part at the premiere.

The soloist here was Richard Goode, a New York pianist who continues to live up to his name. Acclaimed for his Beethoven, Mr. Goode remains a rigorous academic and sober interpreter of the classical period. Working closely with Mr. Honeck, the soloist delivered a rich and full interpretation, capturing the bittersweet qualities of the three movements with a touch that hovered between delicate and dramatic. This approach was best heard in the central Larghetto, with its hesitant treatment of the subject matter and the dancing Rondo Allegro, which sparkles along with nary a care.

The second half of the concert was Mr. Honeck's creation, a framing of the Requiem that  used only the music that the composer completed. The mass itself was prefaced with the slow and somber Masonic Funeral Music, a deep catalogue work that Mozart wrote in 1787. With its stately tread and lamenting, minor-key tonality, this Funeral Music served as an ideal preparation for the contemplative Introit that opens the larger work. It was an inspired and creative choice.

Playing only the parts of the Requiem that Mozart wrote (or at least worked on)  reduces the running time of the work to a lean 30 minutes. Mr. Honeck omitted the last four sections of the liturgy, which were set to music by Mozart's pupil Franz Xavier Süssmayer. For this performance, the Philharmonic players were supported by a quartet of operatic soloists (soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo Megan Mikailovna Samarin, tenor Ben Bliss and bass Matthew Rose) and the Westminster Symphonic Choir. The performance was respectfully dedicated to the great choral conductor Joseph Flummerfelt, who died from a stroke earlier this month.

There was something weird and morbid about this performance. The Introit inched along, moving the music forward, and yet the listener wondered in the back of the mind when that horrible cut-off would finally come. The Sequenzia featured aria opportunities for the soloists, with Mr. Rose and Ms. Harvey creating the greatest impressions. In a further, inventive touch, the Tuba mirum (the Last Trumpet) was represented by a Philharmonic trombonist, stationed high on the second tier of the hall. Mr. Honeck stopped the work at the Hostias chorus, and finished it with a reprise of the first bars of the Lacrymosa from the Sequence, which is the final section that Mozart completed the orchestration for.

However, that was not the last part of the program. With the Süssmayer movements removed, Mr. Honeck opted to end the concert with Ave Verum Corpus, a short and demanding motet. It is also a product of the composer's last year, written for a friend in between work on Die Zauberflöte. After the fire and brimstone of the Confutatis and the booming threats of heavenly judgment, this short glorification of the body of Christ offered some consolation to the listener. Mozart may have died early, but his immortality, this seemed to say, was well and truly earned.

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