Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Many Approaches to Mozart

I do not know if this was an intentional act of design by Music Director George Cleve, but this month's Midsummer Mozart Festival is revisiting two of the works that I felt were high points during this past season of the San Francisco Symphony. Next week Cleve will be conducting the K. 317 "Coronation" mass with the Cantabile Chorale, which Ingo Metzmacher had conducted in Davies; and last night featured the K. 482 E-flat major piano concerto, which Emanuel Ax had performed under the baton of Osmo Vänskä. While I did not write about Metzmacher (even though I have yet to hear one of his performances with the San Francisco Symphony that displeased me and am already looking to the program he has prepared for next February), Ax' approach to Mozart prompted me to write about the way "he could turn the performance over to his inner-twenty-year-old," referring to that "show-off kid" side of Mozart that was so central to his characterization in Amadeus. (Given how strongly this impression has stuck with me, I should, out of a proper sense of full disclaimer, credit it to a conversation I had with a former professional colleague, who had joined me for this particular concert, during the intermission following Ax' performance.) While Janina Fialkowska may share some of Ax' Eastern European roots, her reading was definitely not one of a show-off kid. Like Cleve she had a great sense of all the nuances that Mozart brought to bear in the grammar of his structure; but, also like Cleve, she knew how to let those nuances speak for themselves, rather than marking them all with a metaphorical highlight pen. In other words this was an another example of how conductor and soloist were very much "on the same page" where the rhetoric of performance was involved. This is not to say that Fialkowska was so refined that she was bloodless: She knew how to summon the climax of the first movement cadenza in a way that brought me to edge of my seat, while her sense of touch in the Andante summoned that same sense of poignancy that we hear in The Marriage of Figaro (which Mozart was working on at the time he composed this concerto). The result was yet another reminder of why it is so important to live in a world of live performance, rather than one of a massive library of recordings that, through the wonders of technology, we can take with us wherever we go. As I observed about a week ago, this is not to dismiss the value of those recordings but to emphasize the value of our listening skills and the memories of how those skills can serve us.

This concert was also an interesting exercise in the variety of personal approaches that a soloist can bring to performance. The other concerto on the program was the K. 191 bassoon concerto, played by Rufus Olivier, a familiar face, since my seat at San Francisco Opera affords a great view of the action in the orchestra pit. I do not have a lot of background knowledge of the work (other than having heard several performances, all, unfortunately, recorded); but I do know that this was Mozart's first effort at a concerto for wind instrument and orchestra (just as I know that the clarinet concerto was his last). I also know that Mozart scribbled jokes into the soloist part for his horn concertos, but those came about ten years after the bassoon concerto. Nevertheless, the bassoon is an instrument of extremes; and the kid in Mozart seems to have had a lot of fun running those extremes into each other. Therefore, the important thing about this performance is that both Olivier and Cleve were in on those gags; and Cleve gave Olivier the berth to pull them off, occasionally with some supporting body language. The result was something much more akin to the inner-twenty-year-old approach to performance (although Mozart was actually only eighteen when he wrote this concerto), making for an approach to concerto performance that pleasantly complemented Fialkowska's sense of refinement.

The other featured soloist of the evening was Laura Griffiths, playing the sole oboe part in the K. 251 divertimento. This is a part that has to do double-duty, both shaping the overall sound of the ensemble and coming forward as a full-fledged solo voice. Here, again, Cleve and Griffiths shared a common agreement about when she was playing which role. Also, again, there is a question of whether or not Mozart is playing a prank with that double-duty in the rondo movement, where the oboe has some sustained notes that tend to stick out like a sore thumb and seem to be there more as a sound effect. Since the movement is a rondo, the effect keeps returning; and the result is definitely comical, which I believe to be intentionally so. If it was meant to be a joke, Cleve and Griffiths knew how to avoid belaboring it, making it come of as a throw-away gag of the sort that W. C. Fields had mastered so well. Another possible joke in this work is that, while the rondo has a definite feel of being a finale, it is not the final movement. Rather, it is followed by a "Marcia alla francese," which would almost provide an opportunity for the performers to march off the stage, were they not primarily a string ensemble. Most likely Mozart was taking this as an opportunity to tweak the expectations of the Archbishop of Salzburg, making it just another example of coping with strained relationships in the workplace!

Since I have covered all the other pieces, I should mention that this program, which was already quite generous in length, concluded with the K. 338 symphony (number 34 in C Major). In the context of the divertimento, this is the last symphony Mozart wrote in Salzburg. It has only three movements but, in its own way, is a rather massive piece of work. It required the largest of orchestral resources of the works on this particular program, bringing a final burst of energy as a conclusion to the evening. Indeed, the final Allegro vivace movement was delivered at as breakneck pace (without any loss of accuracy), which I feel is really the way it should be rendered. This may make it a bit of an athletic stunt; but, actually, its just the show-off kid at it again! Indeed, since so much ground had been covered in the concert, this was the perfect way to leave us walking out of Herbst Theatre in an upbeat mood!

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