Mostly Mozart in New York – Ravel & Fauré

Pavane pour une infante défunte
Piano Concerto No.17 in G, K453
Requiem, Op.48 [1893 Version]

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

Sophie Karthäuser (soprano)
Dietrich Henschel (baritone)

Swedish Radio Choir

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Louis Langrée

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 7 August, 2007
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

As London’s “Mostly Mozart” series wraps up, the annual festival of the same name at Lincoln Center is well under way with more than a few wags calling it “Mostly Beethoven” given the dominance of that ‘other’ classical-era composer in this season’s programming.

This concert was dedicated to the memory of Beverly Sills, whose recent passing is still hitting home at Lincoln Center. The choice of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte to open was both appropriate and poignant. Sills was New-York-home-grown and her accomplishments as a dynamic force behind New York’s performing arts scene will yield fruit for decades. Louis Langrée and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra offered a performance bereft of overt sentimentality; the emphasis was on individual and group timbre, sonic color and a balance that allowed the gentle melancholy of the melodic line to sing, a moving elegy without words.

Marc-André Hamelin seems at last to be drawing a large and enthusiastic audience in New York. Pianophiles know Hamelin well thanks to his remarkable recordings (mostly for Hyperion) which have focused for the most part on Romantic virtuoso works of formidable difficulty, ‘niche repertoire’ to which he has brought renewed attention. His recent recordings of Haydn and Brahms have hinted at a change in direction, and the thought of Hamelin tackling a concerto from Mozart’s early maturity joined by a conductor with one foot in the ‘authentic’ camp might seem incongruous.

Langrée elicited crisply articulated, elegantly balanced playing from the orchestra in the first movement, strings without vibrato contrasting quite strongly with the bright ‘modern’ sound from the winds (this juxtaposition can still be a bit disorienting to those of us brought up on the Mozart of Josef Krips and Karl Böhm).

Hamelin was in complete command of what must be one of the half-dozen or so best-maintained post-war Steinway Model Ds in the world. He made his entrance with understated bravura, cheerful and warmly detailed playing completely in sympathy with Langrée and the orchestra, bringing chamber-music clarity to the movement without sacrificing the charming melodic ‘nod-and-a-wink’ quirks that characterize so much music of Mozart’s early maturity. At the opening of the Andante, Langrée employed an unusual and uncharacteristic slowing of the introductory, pre-big-tune phrase, which was echoed by Hamelin. In lesser hands, this Andante can come across as choppy and terse; Langrée and Hamelin brought unusual continuity and coherence to the movement, with the A-A-B-A form almost seeming to be conveyed in four fascinating, sustained phrases. The finale of this concerto is unbuttoned and satisfying; it allows the winds in particular to shine along with the piano and the performers let loose with the music’s whimsy, particularly the final variation that sounds more like one of Mozart’s operatic curtain-raisers.

Fauré’s “Requiem”, played in its original 1893 version, was very moving. Langrée eschewed the overt interpretative emotionalism and drama that has accrued on this work, focusing instead on creating a serene, transparent, often organ-like sonority from orchestra and chorus alike. The 32-member Swedish Radio Chorus is one of the world’s finest choirs; the singers created a soundscape at once ethereal and profound. Sophie Karthäuser and Dieter Henschel blended very well emotionally and musically with the ensemble forces. One point in the performance stood out: the string accompaniment that opens the ‘Sanctus’ sounded, if ever so briefly, like 1980s-era John Adams or Louis Andriessen as violinist Krista Bennion Feeney’s gentle, soaring violin solo almost seemed to hover above the ensemble on another plane. The effect was astonishing. And the final ‘In Paradisum’ suggested not Botticelli angels but a peaceful realm of color, space and the infinite. The silence that followed the final note seemed filled with a sense of awe and peace.

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