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Yes Virginia, there are still some good Mozart players...

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/09/2023 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No.18 in B‑flat Major, K.456
Franz Schubert: Symphony No.9 in C Major, D.944

Emanuel Ax (piano)
Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Bernard Labadie (Principal Conductor)

E. Ax (© Nigel Parry)

For their first concert of the 2022‑23 season, Orchestra of St. Luke’s has chosen two works: a piano concerto by Mozart and one of the longest symphonies in the repertory, Schubert’s Symphony No.9. The conductor Bernard Labadie had as his soloist in the Mozart concerto the formidable pianist Emanuel Ax, who appeared in New York recently both at Carnegie Hall and as the soloist with the New York Philharmonic in their newly renovated Geffen Hall. It was good that we had a chance to hear one of the loveliest–yes, I know it is an oxymoron to use that word in describing Mozart piano concertos!–of Mozart’s concertos, this one K.456 and one that unaccountably is performed rather infrequently. This work comes from a remarkably productive period in the composer’s life when he wrote no less than six piano concertos, and among them two in the key of B‑flat (the other being K.450, technically even harder than K.456). This concerto was supposedly composed for Maria Theresia von Paradies, a very talented pianist, admired by Mozart himself and one that lost her sight in early childhood. It is not known if Ms. Paradies, known for her admirable recall and pianistic skills, ever performed this jaunty concerto in Paris (as Mozart’s father indicated) but it is known that the composer performed this score at least twice. At one such occasion, in front of the royal court, the Emperor Joseph II himself waved his hat and cried “Bravo” which apparently brought tears to Leopold Mozart.

The opening march‑like dotted rhythm in the opening measures was quite characteristic for the number of other concertos in that group of six: D Major K.451, G major K.453 and F major K.459. The orchestration calls for oboes, bassoons and horns and the writing for the winds is quite elaborate: at this point the interplay of the solo piano part and wind instruments and their dialog and weaving tunes between the sections was quite well established in Mozart’s writing.

Although the mood of K.456 is cheerful, joyful and positive, there are some passing clouds in the middle movement “Andante un poco sostenuto” in the key of G minor. Whereas the previous work, Concerto No.17 featured the theme and variations form in its last movement, in Concerto No.18 it is the slow movement that is built as a theme and five variations. It’s theme may, to some ears, recall Barbarina’s aria from the Marriage of Figaro. Speaking of which: about the most significant unifying factor in those concertos is its reliance on opera, which seems to never be far away in any of Mozart’s writing. Those instrumental dialogues are almost verbatim taken out of the operatic world. Conversely, some of the variations attain a dramatic–thus operatic–character. There is one incredibly poignant moment in the very end of the variations and this also could be taken out of the operatic realm.

The jovial 6/8 meter returns for the vivacious finale (“Allegro vivace”),but then, suddenly appears a moment later in the remote key of B minor including a Mozartian rarity, a hemiola (part of the ensemble in the duple, part in the triple meter), but swift arpeggios of the piano part return quickly and, as is the case with many other Mozart works, the movement comes to a quiet end, only to be interrupted by the two loud final chords.

As for the performance there seems to be a sort of duality: I had the impression of two parties speaking the same language if not necessarily the same dialect. On one hand we had the consummate musician and formidable pianist Emanuel Ax, on the other hand the equally excellent musicians from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (OSL), but their conversation was not precisely choreographed. In the roster of OSL, as this orchestra is popularly referred to, one finds the most experienced, most talented players among the New York freelancers and their names also adorn such formidable orchestras as Orpheus. But even the most excellent French horn players are prone to some missed notes and a few times we heard some problems with executing high notes. On the podium, we had Mr. Labadie, as always sitting rather than standing: he is a renowned conductor very much at home in Baroque and Classical repertory. He has successfully worked with this ensemble since 2018 and is their Principal Conductor.

Yet, there were minute problems of balance, ensemble and phrasing. I always maintain that if musicians sometimes phrase in a different manner than the soloist, perhaps it is a role of the maestro (master) to guide them to achieving that similar approach. But in this performance, which had, at least on paper, a chance of being exemplary, some little imperfections were happening and those were a bit disappointing. On the part of the conductor, I regretted that he didn’t conduct the score in a little more operatic manner, where the orchestra utterances, the opening theme for example, possessed a little more breathing space. Another thought that crossed my mind was that some of the string and wind players, who perform without a conductor in the ensemble such as Orpheus, would probably listen more carefully to the soloist when not following the conductor. I want to stress that in any other situation one could be eminently satisfied with the results: here however we had a right to expect unparalleled excellence which we‑the‑audience almost got. It is possible that even these terrific musicians can’t overcome the fact that they are not an ensemble rehearsing four times a week, making the task of creating homogenous, well crafted sound all the more difficult to obtain.

As for Mr. Ax, he has been known almost from the very beginning of his career as a superb soloist in Mozart concertos: they have never been absent from his active repertory, but he has not presented to us the Concerto K.456 for about four decades. Under his infallible fingers, the notes did not only sparkle but even more importantly they sang. When evaluating Mozart performances, I have a pet peeve in that I search in pianists their ability to play fast runs or scales as melodies written in short value notes. In listening to Mr. Ax in this lovely Mozart concerto, I had the feeling that indeed I am listening to melodies being played fast but without the notes ever losing their ability to speak. His exemplary articulation and touch helped in cantilena passages when we were also always aware of ebb and flow of the phrases.

The finger work was still undimmed by his age and his delicacy and control of the keyboard was commendable. In a few places, Mr. Ax allowed himself a little freedom ornamenting the solo part in a very stylish manner and providing his own improvisatory moments. In the first movement, he also presented an unfamiliar cadenza, which turned out to be Mozart’s own. As often would happen, the concertos for which Mozart’s cadenzas survived were the ones that were used for Mozart students, as the composer would certainly improvise a cadenza on the spot. In the case of the Concerto in B‑flat, we now have two different cadenzas: the one heard at Carnegie was apparently discovered only recently in some Russian archives. I was very impressed with Mr. Ax’s beauty of sound and his crystalline tone: he proved again that he is–at least in the concerto repertory–one of a few important pianists of impeccable taste and musicality. And, of course, it was so good to hear this charming, good‑natured concerto from a good‑natured player. In times such as this one happily abandons all the comparisons with other versions of the past or present and just enjoys this magnificent music lovingly performed.

Mr. Ax allowed himself to play one encore, Schubert’s song Serenade or Ständchen (from Schwanengesang) in a masterful arrangement by Franz Liszt. It was simple, with beautifully delineated voices which in that arrangement weave through all the registers of the piano. Those of the patrons who plan to attend Mr. Ax’s solo recital in the spring, also at Carnegie Hall, can expect in the program several other Schubert‑Liszt songs.

Regrettably the time didn’t permit me to stay for the Schubert Symphony No.9 performed after the intermission, which I greatly regretted.

Roman Markowicz



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