Tag Archive: Mozart

BEMF 2013: Review: Feeling the Elephant’s Ear

The BEMF Orchestra.

No one can review the Boston Early Music Festival. Critics must select what time, physical energy and mental attention allow from the one hundred and forty plus musical events, exhibition offerings, lectures, etc, that are encompassed by the official festival and its very prolific offspring on the “fringe,” whose events are included in the official program book. (Schlepping the 300 + page book to events gets to be another physical challenge.) This assessment of the scope, size, and character of the event is based on random selection and personal bias. As a keyboard player, I favored keyboard events to the point of taking in a series of concerts rather than running from one venue another. In a few cases, I wanted to see performances by people I know. I also seem to have listened to a lot of Bach. From this random sampling, I hope to convey something of the range of performers’ skills, repertory, ideas, and innovations attached to the concept of “Early Music” in this year’s festival. But this report is only the elephant’s ear; others will have to deal with the rest of the creature’s anatomy.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s All Mozart Program Including the C Minor Mass in Sydney

Mozarts Geburtshaus. Photo by Marion Kalter.

Since the resurrection of certain large and important Mozart works, Idomeneo being the main example which only came back to theatres and concert halls again around 60 years ago, much of his sacred music remains unsung or at least rarely heard. The Requiem mass, the C minor mass, the Coronation mass, Ave verum corpus are more or less ubiquitous, and do deserve many hearings. There are certain others a little less often heard, but there remain very many masses, mainly short youthful ones, litanies and fragments, starting from Mozart’s childhood in the late 1760’s through the ’70’s, with many fewer in the ’80’s when he was writing his finest operas. These sacred pieces, as well as the church sonatas which are thought to have been played as part of some of the masses, and also I might add Mozart’s ceremonial masonic music which also has a particularly strong and direct metaphysical sense (though masonic music has its own peculiar style), approach the universe in a very Mozartean way, surprisingly similar to his secular music, even though they respond to different texts or purposes. These sacred pieces’ clear dramatic sense makes them well suited to the concert hall, even if they can loose some of their gravity in the more modern workaday venues. Still they aren’t operas and obviously the separate religious importance matters greatly whatever the occasion which sees them played, even if both Mozart’s sacred choral and secular music span human existence with such deep and sensitive empathy. Mozart’s thoughts and music-making about the divine are al the more powerful when one considers that though he wrote less sacred music in the 1780’s, at the same time (or at the latest by 1790), he greatly desired the job of St. Stephen’s cathedral composer, to the point of volunteering to assist the aging incumbent.

Mozart’s Requiem Revealed: Georg Friedrich Haas’s 7 Klangräume zu Mozarts Requiem played by the Argento Contemporary Ensemble, Michel Galante, conductor, with the Andante for flute and orchestra, K. 315 with Paula Robison

St. Bartholomew's Dome.

Performances that are enlightening to the point of changing our attitudes about the textual and performative conventions of a major work or transforming the way we listen to it are extremely rare. That’s a good thing, in fact, because audiences, who really should be more open to innovation than they are, need and are even entitled to at least some of the comfort tradition offers—not forgetting Otto Klemperer’s famous dictum on the subject…Certain performance traditions change every generation, others perhaps twice as often, yet others less often. The Argento Chamber Ensemble’s recent performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’s 7 Klangräume zu den unvollendeten Fragmenten des Requiems von W. A. Mozart was just such a performance. The composer responsible for the 7 Klangräume, or Seven Soundspaces, Herr Haas, the Argento musicians, and their brilliant conductor, Michael Galante, can share the honors for bringing us Mozart’s Requiem in a new form, adopting a principle which should be even obvious, but which seemed unthinkable because of the consolatory nature of the work and the comforting influence of tradition in its reception. Both the editorial treatment and the performance came together to create an exhilarating new image of the work.

Herr Stadler’s One and Only Basset Clarinet Resurrected: Craig Hill Plays Mozart’s Concerto, also Mozart’s Violin Concerto with Madeleine Easton and Mendelssohn’s Hebrides on Period Instruments of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

L. Benett, "La Grotte de Fingal" from the original Hetzel edition of Jules Verne's 'Le Rayon-Vert.'

It wouldn’t necessarily be very difficult for historic performance practice to degenerate into the “flavor of the month” endlessly seeking novelty, ironically enough, in newest old bizarre instrument never before heard by modern ears, or into a cliquey “earlier than thou” competition. Perhaps we are just beyond this stage, or perhaps the 20 years since Pamela Poulin’s exciting discovery of the appearance of Anton Stadler’s basset clarinet — we haven’t found a surviving original specimen of the ephemeral instrument — has given time for experimentation and to rediscover the technique and the soul of the instrument and the “novelty” part has worn off a bit. The beauty of the basset clarinet’s voice, not so much unfamiliar or even unique, as even more clarinetish than a usual clarinet, is exactly fitting to Mozart’s music, giving a fascinating insight into the idea that a period’s instrumentarium exactly befits the period’s music, and the question whether the instruments evolve to fit the new music or the music evolves to take advantage of the new instruments, or both at once. The clarinet generally speaking having such a “normal” tone between the extremes of the more penetrating and sharp older cousin oboe and small-bird-like ancient cousin flute, fills in an aching space in the orchestra and makes it hard to believe (in retrospect) that it became a regular in european orchestras as late as it did. Indeed Mozart’s life coincided with this change. His letters home from Mannheim, where he first encountered clarinets in orchestral music, read like a revelation he was so enthusiastic about them, and he immediately took to composing in the new woodwind texture. Anton Stadler (his son Johann played the other clarinet in some of Mozart’s symphonies, as in Mozart’s last public concert in early 1791) as a friend and “early adopter,” or perhaps only adopter, of the basset clarinet, such a perfect solo instrument, too perfect, at least for its virtuosic possibilities but more importantly for its expressive voice, no doubt created inspiration and opportunity to write a concerto for it. It is also thought that Mozart and Stadler intended a basset clarinet for the clarinet quintet of two years before (K. 581). Perhaps a shade of that original inspiration sparks performers today. Mozart hadn’t written a concerto for three years (the last piano concerto K. 595 was probably begun in 1788 and finished in late 1790[1. see H. C. Robbins Landon’s 1791: Mozart’s Last Year]), having practically “perfected” the piano concerto (but no doubt he could have had more ideas, judging from the depth of those he wrote), the following concerto turned out to be for clarinet. If the violin concerto would take the 19th century to “perfect” — according to conventional wisdom anyhow — Madeleine Easton’s performance of Mozart’s third violin concerto brought that notion into question (see below). And between the very human piano and violin, it is not common to hear concertos for the stringless family, so it is surprising and amazing to hear such a satisfying concerto for clarinet, as satisfying as any for piano or violin, or at the least it distracts a listener from making the comparison. This is in a large way due to the presence of the resurrected basset clarinet in such a deeply satisfying performance with such a close, understanding rapport between the less familiar clarinet and the more familiar orchestral members.

Emanuel Ax Plays Bach and Schoenberg with the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert…and Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony

Alan Gilbert and Emanuel Ax presenting the Schoenberg Piano Concerto. Photo Chris Lee.

I was so delighted by Emanuel Ax’s performance of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra under Ken-David Masur that I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to hear him play it again. They created a crystalline texture with their alert interactions, with all the incisiveness of the best chamber music playing. Not exactly what one associates with the New York Philharmonic, as excellent an orchestra as they have been, since Kurt Masur’s t years, but, in my experience, Alan Gilbert is strong with twentieth century Music, and it seemed like a promising combination to say the least…and it did work, although in a way quite different from the Tanglewood performance.

The Kuss Quartet and Naoko Shimizu Play Quartets and Quintets by Mozart, Brahms, Kurtág and Gordon Kerry

Jenö Szervánszky. Moon over Dark Buildings. Oil on board. ca.19?? 20 x 15cm Private collection View over the rooftops from the artist's apartment in Danjanich utca, Budapest.

It is always fun when a new string quartet comes to town, especially when they bring strange and different music with them. György Kurtág is not very strange, but nonetheless somewhat rare around here, and more importantly excellent listening, so I’m grateful to the Kuss Quartet for bringing it, even if short, though holding its own among the more usual fair. And the encore of Mozart’s Cassation in C was entirely beyond the call of duty in such an enormous and dense program, especially considering the concentrated, caring manner of their playing.

Hannu Lintu Conducts the Sydney Symphony in Dutilleux and Beethoven, and Angela Hewitt Plays Mozart’s D Minor Piano Concerto

In Henri Dutilleux’s Mystère d l’instante for 24 strings, cimbalom and percussion it is easy to dwell on the cimbalom as a freak in the concert hall, but Hungarian Xavér Ferenc Szabó introduced it to the symphony orchestra in the 19th century when it was essentially gypsy folk music instrument and later Zoltán Kodály used it in the 20th century in his symphonic music. The instrument is far older, a sort of piano before the keyboard and related mechanism were invented, probably used in the middle and near east in ancient times, coming west not too much later. One music historian describes its sound “rather like a piano that has taken its clothes off!” That gives the cimbalom an unfair primitive appearance, its construction no doubt demands as much care and refined techniques as any to sound so convincing next to the usual bowed strings. It no doubt strikes the ears of a modern audience accustomed to symphonic music as antique or near eastern, at least exotic, but I don’t think Dutilleux intended to make any such avant-garde statement for its own sake, and the piece certainly doesn’t have the form of a concerto. Rather I think he wanted a windless orchestra, a study in strings, without even much plucking, mostly bowing and tapping, if we can think of the percussion instruments as two dimensional strings.

A tip for our readers: How to get the most out of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review for the Arts.
What if I hate reading on computer screens, even tablets?
We get occasional inquiries from readers about whether we plan to launch a print edition of our arts journals. The answer is that we've given it some thought, and we're still thinking about it.
It is not only our older readers who object to reading them online. There are even some millennials who would rather read from paper. One of our readers got the simple idea of using the sites as sophisticated tables of contents. She prints out each article on three-hole paper and files them in a loose-leaf album. I've devoted a lot of time to finding the very best print and pdf facility there is. Just click on one of the icons at the top right of the article and print!
Click here to make your tax-deductible donation to The Arts Press, publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review. Or click on the notice in the sidebar. The Arts Press is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the charitable purposes of The Arts Press must be made payable to“Fractured Atlas” only and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.