An Elegant Evening in Imperial Austria: Mozart and Mahler by the New York Philharmonic

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Conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, Photo © Columbia Artists

The New York Philharmonic sounded particularly courtly under the direction of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos in a recent program of Mozart and Mahler. Already the entrance of the maestro, tall, magisterial, and impeccable in his tails, transported one back to the golden days of music-making in Imperial Vienna. Conducting from a seated position on the platform, he conveyed the impression of a ruler on a throne, and the orchestra followed him with restrained deference.

The concert began with Mozart’s delightful Faschingsbonbon, the Serenata Notturna, K.239, which was composed for the Salzburg carnival festivities in January of 1776. The substantially reduced orchestra still seemed too large for the piece, as it tended to overshadow the solo “Salzburg” quartet of two violins, viola, and bass. The quartet, comprising Sheryl Staples, Marc Ginsberg, Rebecca Young, and David J. Grossman, played with precision and accuracy, yet a certain harsh aggressiveness in the sound quality made one wonder if the soloists were indeed feeling excessively outnumbered by the orchestra. Although Frühbeck de Burgos seemed to be listening passively to the solos, his authoritative direction in the tutti passages made it clear that the interpretation was entirely his own, and any appearance of autonomy on the part of the quartet was purely illusory.

The maestoso spirit of the opening Marcia prevailed throughout the entire serenade, continuing into a massive Menuetto and Trio, and a stately Rondeau that was somewhat slower in tempo than a conventional Allegretto. In one of the particularly playful variations of the rondo, Frühbeck de Burgos noticeably manifested a childlike delight that evoked the spirit of the composer.

More Mozart followed, with the Horn Concerto No. 3, featuring Philharmonic principal Philip Myers as soloist. As had been the case earlier in the season, when principal player Robert Langevin was the soloist in Nielsen’s flute concerto, the orchestra seemed particularly sympathetic and cooperative with its colleague, and the result was a well-integrated performance. The audience also showed its overwhelming support for Myers, some members actually erupting into enthusiastic hoots and catcalls of approval as he walked out on stage.

Written in Mozart’s favorite key of E-flat major, the Third Horn Concerto is a work of sublime beauty. Myers’ performance, while entirely creditable, was nevertheless somewhat pedestrian and matter-of-fact. His tone was clear, but lacking in warmth.

To his credit, he performed his own cadenza in the first movement, which artfully reprised and developed the principal and secondary themes.

Under Frühbeck de Burgos’ direction of the relatively large orchestra, the concerto took on a certain monumentality, at times sounding more like Mahler than Mozart.

It was a perfect set-up for the second half of the program, which was dedicated to the colossal Symphony No. 1 of Mahler.

Originally dubbed the “Titan” by the composer himself, although the title was later omitted when the work was published, Mahler’s First Symphony is one of the great pillars of the standard orchestral repertoire. In the hands of Frühbeck de Burgos, its drama, dark, perverse humor, and mercurial mood changes were emphasized to such a degree that it seemed a clear prototype for Shostakovich.

Conducting the score from memory, the maestro was completely sovereign, and the orchestra responded with great sensitivity, bringing out the different colors and characters of the piece: the delicate, ethereal shimmer of sustained violin harmonics in the first movement; the rollicking, pesante heartiness and broad, sweeping phrases of the second movement; the third movement’s funereal bass solo (the famous “Frère Jacques” in the minor key), followed by a lugubrious duet between oboe and bassoon; the tender and delicate dialogue between harp and solo violin over muted strings; and the gradual dwindling of sound to an almost inaudible whisper, that was followed attacca by the stormy finale, with its sinister and ominously threatening sense of foreboding.

The last movement masterfully moved from the melancholy to the bucolic, from torment to triumph, as Frühbeck de Burgos led the orchestra through its paces.

One felt tempted to bestow the epithet of “titan” upon the venerable conductor himself, who was capable of so effectively evoking the grandeur and nobility of an earlier epoch.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.