Last night pianist Rudolf Buchbinder visited Davies Symphony Hall for the first of four performances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 466 concerto in D minor with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). Buchbinder has not played with SFS since 1985, although he was last in Davies in 2010, when he played Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 54 (fourth) concerto in G major with the Dresden Staatskapelle conducted by Daniel Harding. Either way, such a long absence of a pianist with such a solid command of both the technical and the expressive sides of “the Classical style” (to borrow the phrase from Charles Rosen) is regrettable.
The boldness of K. 466 makes it one of the most memorable of the many piano concertos that Mozart wrote. This is not a concerto for the “show-off kid” delightfully strutting his stuff before a wide-eyed audience. Drawing upon the key of D minor, regarded as one of the darkest keys by those who believed that every key carried its own emotional implications, K. 466 is, on just about every imaginable account, music that stuns, rather than dazzles. Yet, while Buchbinder certainly displayed an indubitable capacity to stun, he could to so through the undercurrents of an almost affable patina of elegance. Well aware of how familiar this concerto is, Buchbinder wanted to make sure that he had an attentive audience, rather than one that had come to sit through just another Mozart piano concerto.
With that agenda in mind, MTT served Buchbinder well as conductor. While, he reduced the size of the string section, he also bore in mind the presence of one flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, and timpani. In the face of such resources, he made sure that there were enough strings to pack a wallop when Mozart wanted one. At the same time, he and Buchbinder clearly shared an effective sense of balance, recognizing that impact can only come from a few moments of climax. Thus, the first movement of this concerto succeeded through its capacity to establish omens to keep the listener in suspense, rather than to drown him/her in decibels.
Ultimately, an intelligent understanding of contrast determined the success of last night’s program. The outer movements established themselves not only through the darkness of D minor but also through any number of unexpected mood swings, a rhetorical device that was extended into Buchbinder’s decision to perform the cadenzas written out by Ludwig van Beethoven. By contrast, the B-flat major middle movement, which Mozart labeled “Romance,” is almost cloyingly naïve in its rhetoric, as if Mozart wanted to calm down his listeners before subjecting them to the roller coaster ride of the concluding Rondo. This was a performance that appealed to not only the serious listener but also the less-experienced wondering why so much fuss keeps being made about Mozart; and one cannot fault any of the technique through which the “good news” about Mozart was delivered.
The evening began with an oddity based on a familiar anecdote from the life of the young Mozart. This was Gregorio Allegri’s setting of Psalm 51 in Latin (number 50 in the Vulgate), “Miserere mei, Deus” (have mercy on me, Lord). Mozart heard this music sung at the Vatican when he was fourteen years old and then transcribed it all from memory. MTT introduced the piece with this oft-told tale; but a reality check is in order. Like much of Roman Rite music, this setting is based on the technique of a reciting tone, usually called a “psalm tone” when the text is one of the Psalms. This is a technique that goes back at least as far as Gregorian chant practices; but, between the education provided his father and the experiences of going to church, Mozart must have had a solid command of it by the time he was fourteen. Thus, while the music lasts for about twelve minutes, there are only a few minutes of basic material that recurs as the score proceeds through the Psalm text.
In other words this was a relatively routine part of a service at the Vatican. The only thing that made it special was that the music was not supposed to be performed anywhere else; and then a child with a keen wit “broke the code.” However, if the music itself is routine, it was given an impressive performance by the men of the SFS Chorus joined by the high-register voices of the Pacific Boychoir. The main chorus was lined up along the side aisles beside the Side Boxes, physically opposed to four solo singers (two sopranos, one alto, and one baritone) up in the Terrace. The result was a far more spatial account of Allegri’s music than may have ever been experienced at the Vatican, all conducted by Pacific Boychoir Director Kevin Fox. If the music itself was not particularly profound, the “staging” made for a thoroughly memorable listening experience.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for MTT’s approach to Johannes Brahms’s Opus 73 (second) symphony in D major following the intermission. This is Brahms at his best, a shining example of his ability to balance an intricate logic of structure with rhetorical techniques that span a diverse palette of expressive colors. Unfortunately, last night’s performance showed far too little attention to the details behind either of these components; and the overall sound was just plain ragged too much of the time. Furthermore, MTT’s tendency to bathe in the lush sonorities of his performances of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky now seems to have invaded his approaches to Brahms. Tchaikovsky is rarely well served by such techniques, and Brahms suffers even more. All listeners, not just those with a particular love for Brahms’ passionate rhetoric, deserve better.