in: Reviews

June 26, 2010

Mostly (not quite “Completely”) Mozart at Aston Magna

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Just in case one wonders why nobody runs a Basically Bach Festival to go along with the Mostly Mozart extravaganza: at the Aston Magna “Completely Mozart” performance at Bard College on June 25, the audience was approximately twice the size of that for Daniel Stepner’s Bach recital the previous week.

Stepner was also a major factor in this weekend’s concerts. (The first performance was at Slosberg Auditorium, Brandeis University, on June 24; upcoming is a repeat at Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock on June 26). He played first or only violin in all four works on the program. He is a splendid musician and played with great expressiveness. And at least twice he played modest elaborations of Mozart’s text, a practice that should be standard by now. Unfortunately, there were some moments when he played so modestly that he was lost in the balance.

The program was about as varied as possible with a small group of musicians. Oboist Stephen Hammer, also a splendid artist, joined the string players in the Oboe Quartet, K. 370, playing with easy virtuosity. There was never any suspense about whether he would hit that tricky exposed high note at the end of the piece on target. Whether caused by the period instruments, the work of the musicians, or a combination of factors, this was a wonderfully well balanced performance. Everything was audible (except for Stepner’s momentary fade-outs), and the playing had an easy, comfortable, expressive quality that seemed just right for the music.

The lack of “completely Mozart” on this program began with the Gran Sestetto Concertante, an anonymous 19th-century arrangement of his Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364. The unknown arranger did his or her work well, transforming this orchestral work into large-scale chamber music and redistributing parts so that, for example, a viola solo line might be heard in the cello. While I missed the wind colors of Mozart’s orchestration, this was still a gratifying musical experience, again very well balanced.

The Rondo in A, K. Anh. 581a, is also not completely Mozart. It is Robert Levin’s plausible-sounding completion of a Mozart fragment for basset clarinet and strings, perhaps once intended as the finale of K. 581, and based on an aria from Cosi fan tutte. The basset clarinet looks like a cross between a clarinet and a golf club, or perhaps like a periscope. In the hands of Eric Hoeprich, it sounds like a Platonic ideal of a clarinet, lacking the higher instrument’s brilliance but compensating with a gorgeous mellow sound that seems ideal for Mozart. (Evidently he thought so, since he wrote for it.)

The Clarinet Quintet, also played with the basset clarinet, took on an unearthly beauty with this instrument and its mellow-sounding colleagues. The Larghetto was heart-stoppingly gorgeous, but Mozart and his performers brought us safely back to earth with the playful, dancy Menuetto. These period-instrument and performance-practice specialists were comfortable with surprising freedom of tempo in the concluding variations. The other string players in the ensemble, all superb, were violinist Nancy Wilson, violists David Miller and Laura Jeppesen, and cellists Loretta O’Sullivan and Guy Fishman. The series continues on July 9 (8 PM, Olin Auditorium, Bard) and July 10 (6 PM, Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock) with an all-Pergolesi program. When was the last time you saw that phrase in print?

Leslie Gerber lives in Woodstock, New York. He has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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