Mostly Mozart in New York – Stephen Hough & Louis Langrée

Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467
Davidde penitente, K469

Stephen Hough (piano)

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano) & Steve Davislim (tenor)

Concert Chorale of New York

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Louis Langrée

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 20 August, 2010
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York

The final program of this season’s Mostly Mozart presented two diverse works from Mozart’s later period that have little in common apart from their having been written in 1785. One looks back to the baroque (particularly, Bach and Handel); the other looks forward to the early romantic period.

Mozart’s K467 Piano Concerto contains one of his most beautiful slow movements, made popular by the film “Elvira Madigan”. A grandiose march theme, embellished with a fanfare for woodwinds, brass and timpani, serves as the principal theme of the elegant first movement. One fascinating moment occurs just before the dominant key (G) is established, when the piano anticipates the opening of the G minor Symphony (K550), written three years later. The finale sparkles with the gaiety of “Le nozze di Figaro”, premiered a year after the concerto’s composition. Stephen Hough took a rather detached approach to the work, notwithstanding occasional hesitations imposed upon lyrical phrases. His delicate touch and brilliant technique enhanced the first movement, set at a comfortable, easy-going pace. But the romantic Andante moved along too quickly to work its magic, resulting in a rather glib reading. A relatively brisk tempo worked better in the finale. But despite Hough’s technical agility, evident throughout, certain interesting intricacies in the piano figuration were lost. Occasionally, his playing became angular, although generally he shapes phrases expertly. The cadenzas in the outer movements were provided by the pianist, manipulating thematic material in stylistic diversity that combined touches of Haydn and Schubert. As an encore Hough gave a simple, unaffected and delicate reading of Schumann’s ‘Träumerei’ (from Kinderszenen).

Mozart’s rarely heard oratorio, “Davidde penitente”, was very welcome. For the most part, it is a reworking of music he wrote for his unfinished C minor “Mass” (K427). Mozart wrote the Mass to fulfill a promise he made to his new wife, Constanze, who sang the soprano part at the first (if incomplete) performance in Salzburg when the newly-weds first visited there. At the height of his powers, it was little wonder that his extremely busy schedule caused him to put the work aside. But when the Vienna Society of Artists, whose charitable work included assistance to widows and orphans of its deceased members (Mozart had applied for membership), invited him to compose a work, he had so little time available that he reworked C minor Mass, added two arias and a final cadenza. The text, taken from the Psalms, may have been provided by Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist for “Le nozze di Figaro”, “Don Giovanni”, and “Così fan tutte”.

Scored for the usual Mozart orchestra, to which three trombones, trumpets and drums are added in the opening and closing numbers, the oratorio begins with a sorrowful chorus with soprano solo that uses the ‘Kyrie’ from the C minor “Mass”. The chorus returns for the second number that is a reworking of the ‘Gloria’. Its contrasting dynamic power recalls the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus from Handel’s “Messiah”. A soprano aria follows, supported by oboes, horns and strings, taken from the ‘Laudamus te’. The chorus returns with full orchestra for ‘Sii pur sempre benigno, oh Dio’ (Be ever gracious, Oh God), a demonstrative plea for divine intervention, that looks forward to dramatic intensity of the “Requiem”. A duet for soprano and mezzo-soprano accompanied by strings is sourced in the ‘Domine deus, Rex caelestis’. The sixth number, beginning in a slow tempo, is a tenor aria; the closing allegro, ‘Udisti voti mici’ (You heard my prayers) was newly composed. A chorus (marked Largo), with dotted rhythms, with full orchestra follows; then comes another newly composed aria for soprano, ‘Tra l’osure ombre funeste’, its coloratura-like vocalism looks forward to Rossini. The other vocal soloists join the soprano for a trio, ‘Tutte le mie speranze’ (All my hopes), which leads to the final jubilant chorus that aspires to glory to which Mozart added a cadenza.

The three soloists performed competently. Carolyn Sampson has a fine, spirited voice and exudes confidence, but she sounded slightly shrill at the high end of her voice and was unable to project the unusually extensive passages for the bottom of her range. She certainly has sufficient vocal technique to sing the more florid passages accurately and with impressive agility. Sasha Cooke displayed a firm, vibrant and pleasing vocal quality, although she had some difficulty with the more technically challenging figuration. Although occasionally she seemed uncomfortable or distracted, her pleasant voice and purity of tone was thoroughly engaging. Steve Davislim’s voice is rather confined and lacks a sufficient degree of resonance. In his extensive aria, ‘A te, frat anti affani’ (In you, amid such tribulation), he had difficulty projecting during the opening section that lies at the low end of his range. But when the tempo shifted to a moderate allegro and his part moved into mid-range, his experience in the opera-house came through and he was able to make himself heard better.

The members of Concert Chorale of New York before seemed uncomfortable at times, lacking focus and sounding bland and colorless at first. Even the dynamic second chorus, ‘Cantiam le glorie e le lodi’ (Let us sing the glories and praises) and the stentorian seventh number, ‘Se vuoi, puniscimi’ (If you will, punish me), sounded rather reserved. After a workmanlike, if rather matter-of-fact opening section for bass voices, the finale began to take wing after when the soloists concluded the fervent trio written especially for this oratorio, and the chorus made every effort to fill the hall with glorious music.

Credit should be given to Louis Langrée for programming the oratorio as well as making an effort to infuse it with sufficient dramatic intensity. That for the most part his forces only partially rose to the occasion is unfortunate, particularly because “Davidde penitente” provides a glimpse of the celebrated works of Mozart to come while evidencing how much he learned about vocal writing from his predecessors.

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