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An Almost Disconcerting Concert

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
08/05/2014 -  & August 6, 2014
Alfred Schnittke: Moz-Art à la Haydn
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 1 in B-flat major, K. 207 – Symphony No. 38 in D major (“Prague”), K. 504
Josef Haydn: Overture to “L’isola disabitata”

Ruggero Allifranchini, Laura Frautschi, Christian Tetzlaff (Violins)
Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Louis Langrée (Conductor)

C. Tetzlaff (© Alexandra Vosding)

We had a double-significance for “Mostly Mozart” the summer festival of Avery Fisher Hall, last night. Not only was it merely “half” Mozart one piece which was almost Mozart, and one Haydn work was almost Beethoven.

It was, in fact, a syncretic festival, conducted by the so competent conductor of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Louis Langrée.

Except that started with a work that didn’t have the orchestra at all, but eleven strings, two soloists, and a setting which was part George Friedrich Haas, part Haydn, part Mozart, and yes, all from that master syncreticist, Alfred Schnittke.

I had heard Moz-Art à la Haydn on record, but didn’t realize that Schnittke added his own theatrical effects to a staged performance. The players started out in complete darkness (ergo the Haas), walked off the stage at the end (yes, Haydn’s Farewell Symphony), but otherwise was a delicious romp by a composer who could augment the most diverse music with his own tightrope-walking alteration of harmonies from one century to the next.

The music almost sounded like Mozart (and was taken from a late unfinished “pantomime”), but the harmonies were jarring, the cadences almost pure until they were flummoxed by some cagey distortions. With this, Schnittke adds the Concertante element, two brilliant soloists–the First Chair violinists of the orchestra, Ruggero Allifranchini and Laura Frautschi–playing endless cadenzas as the string players walk around them with the equivalents of 18th Century harmonies, 20th Century Russian style.

If one purpose of great music is the sound of surprise, this did it. The neophyte audience (see below) was not baffled, but entranced, as they should have been. Rather than 20th Century discordance or atonal writing where you have to know the formulae, Moz-Art à la Haydn was Picasso-style Cubism. All the elements of the 18th Century were there, but they were disconnected, pulverized, returned to their original shape, only to be lightly stamped on again.

More than a romp, this was an art which said, “Don’t believe what you should believe. Don’t believe at all. Simply listen and let the centuries carry you off to comfortable Classical universe somewhere in the suburbs of our own.”

The complete Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra came on stage next for some real Mozart.

New York has its share of pickup orchestra–ensembles brought together for a concert or two from the freelance musicians who make Manhattan the magnet for all artists. The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra is hardly pickup. For twelve years now, the ensemble draws some top musicians from orchestras in Saint Louis, St. Paul, and Pittsburgh, as well as players from the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Ballet.

The intensity of their rehearsals must be exhilarating, as is the stage, which brings the orchestra closer to the audience. Add to this onstage seating ( behind and to the sides of the orchestra), and you have a kind of community gathering.

Granted, these are not your usual Lincoln Center audiences at all. Wild applause greeted each movement last night, and while this might have disturbed a few purists, their applause was obviously heartfelt. (In fact, this was probably customary until about 50 years ago, and Sir Thomas Beecham encouraged it.)

Their tripartite applause for Christian Tetzlaff, a frequent player here, was well meant, since Mr. Tetzlaff is an unbelievably good fiddler, and his modern replica of a Guarneri del Gesù violin had tones, especially in the high notes, which were not only beautiful in themselves but vibrated straight down to the audience.

Still, so marvelous was the playing that Mozart seemed to be hiding in the bushes. I have no doubt that Mr. Tetzlaff led conductor Langrée into pacing paths which he would have been loath to take himself. The direction ”Allegro Moderato” meant nothing in the first movement. Mr. Tetzlaff went ahead like a Nascar driver, giving little heed to nuance or contour.

This was, after all, the work of a young composer who made a point of being as charming as he was elegant. The charm was missing, the elegance was missing (Mr. Tetzlaff’s cadenza simply swung ahead with the same pacing as the rest of the movement.) He was dazzling, yes, But he performed to show off his endless skills, not the work of Mozart.

The second movement was played with equal skill, though Mr. Tetzlaff, like a champion three-year-old racehorse, was anxious to get on with the Presto finale. Here, the sixteenth-note passages became a whirligig of arms and fingers, sometimes foggy, sometimes with sun shining through the fog.

It was ear-popping fiddle-playing, it wasn’t enjoyable Mozart.

Mr. Tetzlaff did make up for this in the unusual encore. The year after the First Violin Concerto, Mozart substituted a more satisfying rondo finale, which Mr. Tetzlaff played with the finesse and joy that was missing in the concerto itself. He had time to show Mozart’s wealth of melodies, his unerring sense of structure and form. Mr. Tetzlaff relaxed a bit, took an honest delight in this encore, and the result was music which finally did justice to both artist and composer.

The second half, like the first, balanced a rare short opening to a more popular major work. Not that anything was minor about Josef Haydn’s overture to his opera, “The Deserted Island”. In fact, Beethoven himself–the early Beethoven of Prometheus could have easily composed such a daring work.

As the program explained, we don’t hear many Haydn operas these days, since he frankly didn’t have much choice in librettos, and “The Deserted Island”, where some shipwrecked young folks find love and friendship and (finally) rescue, is hardly The Tempest.

But this Overture was so good that it was published separately from the opera during Haydn’s lifetime. Had the introduction replaced the opening of Beethoven’s Coriolanus, nobody would object.

The final work, Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony gave the lie to Mozart’s love of the Czech capital itself. The Classical-sized orchestra (a mere 40 players) played this like a symphony of war. The soloist was the kettledrum, the martial rhythms were portentious, the sounds were hardly classical.

If this was Mr. Langrée’s version of the work, so be it. The orchestra performed with velocity, clarity and Romantic-period explosive sounds.

Harry Rolnick



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