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Mozart, Mahler, Mendelssohn, then Montero, at Tanglewood

Gabriela Montero’s playing seems as spontaneous as if the notes of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto were the sparks of her own genius.

Two different replacement conductors were required to lead the BSO through this past weekend at Tanglewood after the cancellation of Christoph von Dohnanyi, and the death last month of BSO favorite Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos. It was fortunate for the BSO that Mr. Dohnanyi’s replacement, the Austrian Manfred Honeck, is a very talented musician who led keen, if not quite electrifying performances on Friday and Saturday evening. Friday’s concert was an exercise in the well-formed, classical, and then classically-based Romantic perfection of Mozart and Mendelssohn, and Saturday in the charming intemperance, if not impertinence, of what Romanticism finally became in the music of Gustav Mahler. It must have been somewhat of a confusing task for Mr. Honeck to have to conduct both in the same weekend. Sunday afternoon, by contrast, brought us delightful Romanticism without pretention in Verdi and Rachmaninoff, and the long overdue BSO debut of the astoundingly talented Venezuelan pianist Gabriella Montero.

Friday’s evening presentation began with Beethoven’s little known overture to “The Creatures of Prometheus,” Opus 43, which like some of that composer’s “Leonora” overtures is Beethoven’s attempt at Italian operatic lightness in which he is largely succeeds. That the BSO did not appear to have sufficiently warmed up for this opening made one anxious for Maestro Honeck, in his BSO debut, who, however, seemed an entirely different man, with an entirely different orchestra for the rest of this evening and the next.

Manfred Honeck and Paul Lewis in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12. Photo by Hilary Scott.
Manfred Honeck and Paul Lewis in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12. Photo by Hilary Scott.

The BSO’s playing in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A, K 414, with pianist Paul Lewis, was scrupulous, tender, and sweet, though not perhaps as full as one might have liked. And yet the genius of this relatively unambitious jewel of a concerto was put on full display in Lewis’s performance that was above all sensitive, and clear.

The number 12 affixed to this concerto belies its maturity; at K. 414 it is actually a rather mature work, not that I wish to say anything against the beauty and perfection already inherent in Mozart’s early compositions. The orchestral exposition in the first movement delights us from the beginning with its characteristically Mozartian building of instrumental layers, and ends with a cadential figure seemingly transplanted from the violin Concerto no. 5, also in A major.

The first movement development, as often in Mozart, is brief, un-ambitious, and yet delightful, leading us gently back to a recapitulation of the opening material. The Andante second movement, by contrast, is an example of a longer, more spun-out classical theme, varied with an expertly inserted minor B section; the formal perfection here of Mozart’s work is palpable, as in the third movement rondo marked Allegretto. It is sometimes said about great works of art, usually not on the largest scale, that nothing should have been added or taken away from them. This is normally the case in Mozart, to an extent far beyond the other canonical geniuses of classical music; but it is particularly evident here. Of the group of piano concertos of which no.12 was a part, Mozart said they are, “a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult…pleasing to the ear and natural without being vapid”: the golden mean indeed! Our able soloist for the work was the much-recorded Paul Lewis, whom I wish, nevertheless, had added a bit more pathos to his playing, not that anyone, in the moment, could have felt this wanting.

Conductor Manfred Honeck with BSO.
Conductor Manfred Honeck with BSO.

After the intermission, we were treated to Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, also in A, and another sensitive performance by the BSO under Maestro Honeck. Composed in 1833 this work, while firmly Romantic in sensibility, nevertheless has its roots fully planted in the well-formed-ness of Mendelssohn’s classical predecessors. The first movements’ exuberant opening theme has more of the aura of a late classical symphony than of a purely Romantic outpouring of emotion, which, nevertheless, we find in the second movement Allegro con Moto, which would have suited the composer quite well as a scene-introduction to a work of high Romantic opera. For me, it is a shame Mendelssohn never wrote for the opera or ballet stage, as his style is in many ways ideally suited to that genre. This sensibility continues into the third movement, which seems a scherzo only by virtue of being in three, and whose long melodic lines belie the fact, until the exquisite trio theme is introduced by a cohort of horn and bassoon. As always, Mendelssohn’s writing is exquisitely formed, whether in a broodingly languid or exacting mood. Again, Honeck could have brought a bit more gusto to the performance, but in general the orchestra seemed to find the drama quite naturally in the music itself.

Saturday evening brought us an event long anticipated, in the eyes of many: the BSO’s presentation of Mahler’s Symphony Number 2 in C minor, called “The Resurrection” because of a poetic text by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock assigned to the choral part of the final movement on the theme of Auferstehung, “Resurrection.”

Manfred Honeck leads the Boston Symphony with Camilla Tilling and Sarah-Connolly. Photo by Hilary Scott.
Manfred Honeck leads the Boston Symphony with Camilla Tilling and Sarah-Connolly. Photo by Hilary Scott.

Before armies of Mahler partisans try to roast me alive for what I am about to say, let me preface my thoughts on the “Resurrection” Symphony by saying it is clear Mahler’s talent was virtually unparalleled in his day; that Mahler attempts to build nearly all of his grandiose symphonies on fundamentally good material. To be sure, it is of the late Viennese, vaguely schmaltzy type, but, like early Richard Strauss and some of Johan’s compositions, it rarely ceases to be enchanting.

The trouble is that Mahler took himself much too seriously. Not content to become perhaps the greatest writer of Viennese light music that ever lived, he had to give us nine mammoth symphonies instead, a genre to which his compositional abilities were largely unsuited. In this way Mahler’s symphonies, and in particular the Symphony No. 2 in C minor, are like too many Hollywood films that begin with a good conceit but don’t know where to go with it.

The first movement Allegro Maestro has some extremely attractive material but is it really necessary to continue with the same descending bass-motive over and over again? Too often Mahler’s idea of development vacillates only between the commonplace and the bizarre. In the beautiful opening to the fourth movement Urlicht (Primal Light) it seems for an instant that Mahler has found some harmonic ingenuity, much in the Wagnerian mode, but the tremendously long fifth movement quickly descends in to a series of gimmicks. I fear that even this very persuasive performance by the BSO and the always excellent Tanglewood Festival Chorus could not prevent the final movement from becoming really quite boring; the musical climaxes, in the end, cease to have effect. Pulling at our musical heart-strings for what seemed to be the thousandth time, they leave us largely insensible.

Sunday afternoon’s concert marked the shamefully belated BSO debut of virtuoso pianist Gabriela Montero with Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto in C minor, Opus 18. The vice of Rachmaninoff, despite his considerable melodic gifts, is usually that there are simply too many notes, the material surfeited by an overly zealous piano-virtuoso composer with more than a little helping of schmaltz. The marvel of Ms. Montero’s seemingly effortless performance, and her successful back-up band under the direction of the Canadian conductor Jacque Lacombe, was that it all seemed to flow quite naturally together.

Yes, this is late Romantic music of a very sugary nature indeed, but nothing, at least here, sounded impertinent to my ear. In the first movement Moderato we are surfing happily atop an ocean wave of indulgent pleasantry; and though it is true that the second movement becomes a little two loungey for my taste, Rachmaninoff, in general, shows a surprising amount of good taste here, though the climatic build does get a bid mawkishly sentimental.

Though not indicated in the program, I expect Ms. Montero may have written the cadenza herself, for her skills at improvisation have become well known throughout the world, even in an era where classical musicians are not typically expected to do such things. Perhaps next year we will be treated to an Ozawa Hall presentation of Ms. Montero signature act of having audience members hum a tune, and then embarking on a ravishing classical improvisation of that tune. Here, however, even with notes not her own, Ms. Montero’s playing seems as spontaneous as if they were the sparks of her own genius.

After the intermission, the BSO regaled us with a sort of greatest-hits selection of Verdi, the Overture and Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from “Nabucco” and Act II, Scene II Triumphal Scene from “Aida.” As any frequenter of the opera will know, the music is delightful; and it was a particular treat to hear some of Verdi’s finest music presented by a full-sized Symphony Orchestra, unconfined by the narrow dimensions of an opera-house pit. We were also fortunate to be introduced to a new promising singer in Issachah Savage as Radames, and an ensemble of better known Metropolitan Opera Regulars, including the superb basses Julien Robbins and Morris Robinson. Somehow one is not irked so much by Verdi’s bag full of percussive tricks as one is in Mahler, perhaps because they are simply more appropriate to Verdi’s idiom, whereas Mahler is constantly groping for a successful idiom of his own, and never quite manages to find one.

 

 

 

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