Mostly Mozart in New York: Vänskä & Hough

Beethoven
Namensfeier – Overture, Op.115
Mozart
Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488
Schubert
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)

Stephen Hough (piano)

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä


Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 20 August, 2005
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

A fresh, dramatic and frequently exciting concert. The program opened with the rarely performed Namensfeier overture, a piece Beethoven described as “an overture for every occasion – or for concert use”. Gestated over a period of five years, it was completed and dated on 4 October 1814, on the Emperor’s name-day – or as Beethoven wrote on the score, “Abends zum Namenstag unsers Kaisers” (in the evening of our Emperor’s name-day). This inscription led to the piece being referred to as the ‘Name-day’ overture although there is no history of its ever being performed at an event honoring Napoleon I.

The robustly-scored piece is in a generally celebratory mood and consists of a stately introduction followed by a sonata-form allegro. Guest maestro Osmo Vänskä, making his highly anticipated Mostly Mozart Festival debut, led the orchestra in a performance marked by gusto and precision, with especially fine playing by the winds and brass. The orchestra’s sound was fuller than one has come to expect from the chamber-scale Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, and it was strikingly balanced and solid throughout.

Following the Beethoven, Stephen Hough gave an exceedingly satisfying account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23. Hough played with a clarity, precision, elegance and sparkle that was matched by Vänskä and the orchestra. In the first movement, Hough played his own cadenza, a brief but brilliantly realized fantasy in which Mozart’s themes were recast in an unmistakably modern mold.

The second half was devoted to Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Qualities that marked the performance of Beethoven’s overture were again evident. The sound was hefty, but extremely well-balanced and solid, with ample delicacy on display in the more lyrical passages. Schubert’s Ninth is a long work, but under Vänskä’s direction this performance seemed to fly by. A subtle but exhilarating momentum characterized the first movement, and unusually fine rhythmic pointing marked the beautifully played Andante con moto. As in the Beethoven, Vänskä fully exploited dynamic contrasts, highlighting sudden changes as well as more gradual shifts. In the hectic triplets of the finale the orchestra was peerless in precision while displaying a delightful lightness of articulation. Vänskä’s energetic approach to this symphony counteracted any anticipation that it might be just a bit too long.

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