Saturday, July 26, 2008

Massive Mozart

It is rare to encounter a full evening of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that consists of only two works, but that is what the Midsummer Mozart Festival offered for their second program at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco last night. The intermission was preceded by the K. 361 serenade in B flat Major and followed by the K. 491 C minor piano concerto. These works are separated by only five years, and K. 361 comes at the beginning of Mozart's move to Vienna in 1781. Thus they originate from the same cultural environment, so to speak. However, the only other feature they share is how they reflect Mozart's approach to working with longer time scales.

K. 361 is scored for a rather unconventional collection of solo voices. Double reeds are represented by two oboes and two bassoons. Single reeds are represented by two clarinets and two basset horns. Brass are represented by four horns, two in F and two in B flat, covering a broader range of pitches than usual. Finally, there is a solo string bass, which has a few witty melodic comments that raise it above the usual continuo work. Thus, to revisit the language of Jos van der Zanden cited last week, Mozart is very much back in his playground for "exploring a variety of timbres;" and the qualities of those timbres contribute much (if not most) to the listening experience.

The temporal scale of the work has a lot to do with the number of movements (seven). These include two menuetto movements, two adagio movements (the second a "Romance" with an allegretto middle section), and andante theme with six variations, all framed by two energetic molto allegro movements (the opening preceded by a largo introduction). I think it would be fair to say that Mozart resorted to so many movements for the opportunity to experiment with how these thirteen voices could be deployed in different combinations; so, while the forms themselves may feel a bit repetitive, the sounds themselves never fail to be anything other than fresh and original.

We rarely encounter situations in which mere words can do justice to the richness of purely sonic qualities of a listening experience; but, in the case of the first adagio, we have a descriptive text that provides a far better than usual account of such an experience. The author is Peter Shaffer; and the source (as many either know or can guess) is the text for his play (as opposed to screenplay) Amadeus. The speaker is Antonio Salieri, who has already had two impressions of the Mozart who had just arrived in Vienna. The first impression, in the presence of Emperor Joseph II, was one of a show-off brat. The second is one of his sexual excesses with his wife when they thought they were alone in the library of one of the palaces of lesser royalty. That palace is the site for a performance of the serenade, which became Salieri's first serious listening experience:

I heard it through the door—some serenade—at first only vaguely, too horrified to attend. But presently the sound insisted—a solemn Adagio in E flat.

It started simply enough: just a pulse in the lowest registers—bassoons and basset horns—like a rusty squeezebox. It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it instead a sort of serenity. And then suddenly, high above it, sounded a single not on the oboe.

It hung there unwavering, piercing me through, till breath could hold it no longer, and a clarinet withdrew it out of me, and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling. The light flickered in the room. My eyes clouded! The squeezebox groaned louder, and over it the higher instruments wailed and warbled, throwing lines of sound around me—long lines of pain around and through me. Ah, the pain! Pain as I had never known it. I called up to my sharp old God, "What is this? … What?!" But the squeezebox went on and on, and the pain cut deeper into my shaking head, until suddenly I was running—dashing through the side door, stumbling downstairs into the street, into the cold night, gasping for life. "What?! What is this? Tell me, Signore! What is this pain? What is this need in the sound? Forever unfulfillable, yet fulfilling him who hears it, utterly. Is it Your need? Can it be Yours? …"

Dimly the music sounded from the salon above. Dimly the stars shone on the empty street. I was suddenly frightened. It seemed to me that I had heard a voice of God—and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard—and it was the voice of an obscene child!

Of course not every movement has the profound quality of this adagio, but each movement does speak with its own unique approach to combining the voices of the ensemble. This makes the roughly fifty-minute duration of the serenade one of the most stimulating listening experiences that the entire repertoire of "serious music" affords.

Fortunately, conductor George Cleve has a good sense for how such music is more about that listening experience than about anything else. Yes, he knew how to pace the fifty minutes without letting any individual episode feel like a tax on our time; but, far more importantly, he presided over an impeccable blending of those thirteen solo voices. Thus, whatever we might have known (or not known) about Mozart, the forms of music found in a serenade, or even the "musical scene" in 1781 Vienna, Cleve and his ensemble delivered a performance that was "all about the sound;" and it is performances like those that make San Francisco such a good city for listening to Mozart.

The C minor piano concerto, on the other hand, takes a different approach to composition on a larger temporal scale. As the notes in the program book put it:

When Mozart writes in a minor key, pay attention! Something special is going to happen.

Actually, it is not just what "is going to happen;" it is also a matter of the context that Mozart would bring to minor-key composition. The heart of that context consists of the minor-key works composed by Joseph Haydn between 1765 and 1775. My old Musical Heritage Society liner notes (by Karl Geiringer) called this Haydn's Sturm und Drang period, although, as H. C. Robbins Landon observes in his monumental (five-volume) Haydn: Chronicle and Works, these dates really do not align very well with the rise of Strum und Drang in German literature. Robbins Landon prefers to call this period one of "Crisis Years" (the title of Chapter Four in Volume II), where the musical crisis involved an attempt to break from "business as usual" in the act of composition.

We seldom (if ever) encounter the attribute of Sturm und Drang when we read about Mozart. Nevertheless, we know of the strong personal relationship between Mozart and Haydn; so it is reasonable to assume that, if Haydn was using minor keys as an opportunity to experiment with new approaches to composition, those experiments would have encouraged (if not provoked) Mozart to do the same. From such a point of view, the K. 550 G Minor symphony may be seen as a culmination of Mozart rising to Haydn's challenges, in which case viewing the K. 491 piano concerto as a significant milestone along that path to K. 550 can be seen as enhancing, rather than detracting from, the value of that concerto. So that injunction in the program book to "pay attention!" really is more than shallow rhetoric.

Much of the large scale of the work lies in the opening allegro movement; and this is where we encounter Mozart at his most experimental in matters of form, melodic shape, interplay between soloist and orchestra, and orchestral color. However, even if the following two movements, the (major key) larghetto and concluding allegretto are closer to the usual durational scale, Mozart is still seeking out new territory in them. This is particularly the case in the final movement, where we again encounter the theme-and-variations form; and, as was the case in K. 361, the processes of variation have just as much to do with diversity of sonority as they do with thematic invention. This makes the larghetto a bit of a "calm" between the storm of aggressive declamations in the first movement and the storm of variety in the closing; but that calm weaves its own spell of invention in which, once again, sonority plays a crucial role.

Soloist Nikolai Demidenko had a keen sense of the breath of approaches that a soloist must take in delivering all of this material. Mozart's moods change with the swiftness of turning on a dime, and Demidenko never failed to be in the right "affective place" at the right time. He also chose to perform on a Fazioli piano provided by Piedmont Piano Company. I once heard a lecture about this new standard of piano technology at the old Piedmont showroom in San Francisco; but before last night I had never heard one of these instruments "in action." To the extent that it really is more responsive than more traditionally designed instruments, Demidenko seemed to be working it for all it could deliver. Thus, this was not an "authentic sound" for Mozart; but it was a highly expressive one. Indeed, the choice to go for a more "contemporary" sound was reinforced by Demidenko's decision to play a cadenza for the first movement composed by Johannes Brahms, which begins relatively deferential to Mozart but builds up to pretty much "pure Brahms" by the time it reaches its final trill; and the sensitivities of that Fazioli displayed those "pure Brahms" moments in the best possible light.

Like Jon Nakamatsu last week, Demidenko was given (and accepted) the opportunity to play an encore. He chose two sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (and, no, I cannot identify them by either Longo or Kirkpatrick numbers). From the point of view of imaginative invention, Demidenko's choice of Scarlatti was far preferable to Nakamatsu's choice of Felix Mendelssohn. I doubt that anyone would associate Scarlatti with anything like Sturm und Drang, but he always displayed an uncanny spirit of invention (and often wit) in his brief sonatas, regardless of whether they were in a major of minor key. Demidenko approached his two selections with just the right blend of assertiveness, delicacy, and wit; and, if that Fazioli piano facilitated his decision to take such an approach, then we were all beneficiaries of that choice!

No comments: