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Prayers and Marches

New York
Avery Fischer Hall, Lincoln Center
08/09/2011 -  August 10, 2011
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Ave Verum Corpus, K. 618 – Symphony Number 41 in G Major, K. 551 – Vesperae solennes de confessore, K. 339

Lucy Crowe (Soprano), Helen Karlowski (Mezzo-soprano). Brian Dougherty (Tenor), Scott Wheatly (Bass), Joseph Neal (Bass-baritone for antiphonals)
Concert Chorale of New York, James Bagwell (Director), Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (Conductor)

L. Crowe, I. Fischer (© Lincoln Center)

When Iván Fischer conducted his own orchestra in Budapest more than a decade ago, the most ordinary evenings were turned into dazzling events. The Hungarian government might have disapproved his independence (as he disapproved of their strictures), but “official” musicians would secretly crowd into the Liszt Academy Concert Hall. When I asked one of them what he was looking for, he answered plainly.

“Every other decent conductor has left Hungary,” he sighed (as only a Hungarian can sigh). “Iván gives us hope.”

Well, New York has its share of brilliant conductors, but these days, an appearance of Maestro Fisher is still an event. Apparently this was so with Don Giovanni last week. And it was certainly an event last night.

In Budapest, the conductor shunned the State-run Opera House, but he is decidedly a man of the theatre. So the first half didn’t consist of two works by Mozart. He put them together–the four-minute-long quietly passionate Ave Verum, written months before Mozart’s death, and the electrifying “Jupiter” Symphony.

The result was intriguing. The short motet was sung with an undertone of fervor by the Concert Chorale of New York and the strings of the Mostly Mozart Orchestra. As their sounds died out and the chorus left the stage, Mr. Fischer didn’t dare turn to the audience, in order that this short work serve as invocation. What it invoked, though, was unimaginable.

Those hoping for a poised classical Mozart might have been shocked at Mr. Fischer’s performance. This could have been called the Timpany Number 41, with brass blaring and drums pounding. Most conductors take this quickly enough, but hold back. Mr. Fischer took the first movement through its military paces, and he had the orchestra to pull it off.

The middle two movements were more conventional. But that finale is something which I personally loathe!!

Let me explain. Neither Bach at his most complex or any other composer ever created such a contrapuntal calculus–and they never will! As those themes innocently are played, I know that soon all five will be put together. Not as Bach, not as a quintet-quodlibet, but as a fugue of staggering proportions.

And I loathe it because I know that no human before or after will ever create such measures again.

Needless to say, Mr. Fischer let the music do the talking, somehow transparently allowing each tune to be heard. The ending–like the beginning of the symphony– was crackling with a blare of trumpets.

The second half was not quite so impressive. This was hardly the conductor’s fault. For a celebratory, quick, template church piece, the Maestro put the brass right in front of his dais, he let the chorus sing their anthems with enthusiasm, and he pulled no punches with the pacing.

But these Solemn Vespers are not only hardly solemn, but Mozart perhaps didn’t have his heart into it. All except one movement. Three of the soloists were ensemble singers, but soprano Lucy Crowe sung a near-operatic cantilena, Laudate Dominum with only strings and a solo bassoon. Perhaps her voice was more graceful than ethereal, but when the chorus joined her, it was, as if the composer had thought, “Hey, I can’t simply write an easy piece for the Archbishop. I’m Amadeus. I better give them something for eternity!”

Which he did. And which Mr. Fischer so well understood.

Harry Rolnick



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