Mostly Mozart in New York – Coronation Opening

Piano Concerto No.26 in D, K537 (Coronation)
Mass in C, K317 (Coronation)

Garrick Ohlsson (piano)

Hei-Kyung Hong (soprano)
Suzanne Mentzer (mezzo-soprano)
Matthew Polenzani (tenor)
John Relyea (bass)

Concert Chorale of New York

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Louis Langrée

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 2 August, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

The opening concert of the fortieth annual “Mostly Mozart Festival” in the air-conditioned Avery Fisher Hall provided refreshing relief from the heat-wave that engulfed New York City. The music was both festive and refreshing, comprising the two Mozart works that have both come to be labelled ‘Coronation’ (although neither was actually composed for such an occasion). Beginning his fourth year as the Festival’s music director, Louis Langrée and his excellent Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra were joined by an array of outstanding soloists in a programme that captured the essence of some of Mozart’s most majestic and celebratory music.

Mozart’s penultimate piano concerto was composed in 1788, two years after he had turned out a dozen piano concertos in a three-year period, and three years before he penned his final work in this form. The ‘Coronation’ concerto stands apart from both its predecessors and its lone successor in its majestic and ceaselessly upbeat spirit and its nearly total lack of complex emotional and introspective material. The work’s outer movements are almost entirely given over to brilliant scales, arpeggios and other virtuoso passagework, accented by trumpets and timpani, while the middle movement is straightforwardly melodic, with the piano accompanied only by the strings and winds.

Garrick Ohlsson, Langrée and the orchestra were ideal interpreters of the concerto, capturing the essence of its majesty, glitter and tunefulness. Following the graceful orchestral introduction, Ohlsson played with a light, nimble touch, smoothly rattling off long successions of scales and deftly balancing the opening Allegro’s contrapuntal passages. And following the Larghetto, with its singing tone and lyrical phrasing in both piano and orchestra, came the concluding Allegretto, even more dazzling than the opening movement as the rondo theme underwent its many variations. Ohlsson performed cadenzas by Paul Badura-Skoda.

Ohlsson offered an encore – or as he called it, a “hot weather dividend”: Mozart’s Variations (K265) on “Ah, Vous Dirai-je Maman”, a tune we know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. The universal familiarity of the theme enhanced appreciation of the ingenuity of each of Mozart’s melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and contrapuntal variations, as well as Ohlsson’s bravura playing.

The ‘Coronation’ Mass shares more than a sobriquet with the Coronation Concerto. Like the concerto, it is, for the most part, brilliant and joyous, with drums and brass (including three trombones) adding to its majestic tone, and interlaced with lovely melodic interludes. Only in the choral passages of the ‘Kyrie’ and in the ‘et incarnatus est’ and ‘crucifixus’ sections of the ‘Credo’ does the music take on a more serious, even solemn, tone.

Langrée and the orchestra were joined by a quartet of Metropolitan Opera singers, all of whom gave outstanding performances. Mozart gave the most prominent vocal part to the soprano, and Hei-Kyung Hong was right at home and in glorious voice. Indeed, her solo aria in the ‘Agnus Dei’ is so close in melody and orchestral accompaniment to ‘Dove sono’ from “Le nozze di Figaro”, that one could almost imagine her portraying Countess Almaviva, as she has done frequently at the Met and other opera houses. (Mozart also drew on melodic material from this Mass setting when composing “Così fan tutte”.) Matthew Polenzani was also in fine voice as he joined Hong in duet passages in the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Gloria’. Suzanne Mentzer and John Relyea had less to do, but performed admirably when called upon, both in solo and contrapuntal passages, bringing a fine balance to the quartet’s sound.

The Concert Chorale of New York made 40 voices sound like many more when appropriate, as in the ‘Osanna in excelsis’ passages that recur in the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’, and was meticulously accurate in executing Mozart’s score, a notable example being the numerous fp effects in the ‘Credo’.

As at last year’s Festival, Avery Fisher Hall has been reconfigured to bring the stage thirty-feet forward, with sound reflectors hanging overhead. This gave the hall an acoustic ambience that is much more lively and clear than when in its usual arrangement. The improvement was particularly noticeable in the Mass, with all of the solo vocalists’ voices being clearly and distinctly audible throughout.

As excellent as the piano and vocal soloists and chorus were, the greatest credit must be given to Langrée, who had the orchestra in top form and brought an exquisite and exuberant sense of tempo, phrasing and dynamic balance to the performances of both works. This was a most auspicious start to this summer’s “Mostly Mozart Festival”.

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