in: Reviews

March 4, 2012

Boston Baroque, Levin-Chuang Enliven Mozart


Once in a while one is reminded of how wonderful it can be for a music lover in the greater Boston area. An example of this was offered in Jordan Hall Friday evening, March 2nd. Here assembled was Boston’s fine resident Baroque orchestra under the reliable leadership of Martin Pearlman, Boston Baroque’s Music Director since its first concert in 1973. This time the focus was not on the Baroque, but on Mozart, and quite the evening it was.

All of BB’s accustomed felicities were in evidence —brisk tempi, fabulous string articulations, mellow bassoons and plangent oboes, piquant tympani, telling timbres across the stage  —all a joy to hear. Pearlman opened the concert with Mozart’s sunny Symphony No. 29 in A Major, K.201, which he characterized in his friendly opening remarks from the stage as “…the composer’s crowning and last of his early symphonies, written when Mozart was an ‘experienced’ 18-year-old.” Experienced, in that Mozart by that relatively tender age had already written 28 symphonies. And #29 is indeed a lovely work.

Its opening measures set forth as gentle a Mozartean phrase as one could imagine, but this soon gives way to a pattern of energetic and rapidly repeated short notes. Though these don’t much disturb the generally elegant and cantabile feel of the first movement, they do add a zesty sense of pleasant agitato when they return with a certain amount of adolescent energy in the fourth movement. The Symphony’s slow movement sounded especially poignant with the muted early-instrument strings singing and whispering their melodic assignments. One was reminded yet again of the otherworldly gifts given to this remarkable 18-year old genius. The bouncy Menuetto offered contrast and ably presaged the music of the Rondeau finale, it of a zesty “la chasse” feel, extrovert and energized, redolent of galloping and crisply articulated strings and pealing natural horns accurately and spicily played by Richard Menaul and Robert Marlatt. Throughout out the symphony, one felt that an ideal set of tempi had been agreed upon.

The K. 365 Concerto in E-flat Major for Two Pianos and Orchestra isn’t heard very often. More’s the pity, for it is surely one of Mozart’s most delectable keyboard concertos, with a gentle and haunting second movement that rivals this composer’s finest lyric creations. On hand to illuminate this remarkable music were four treasures—two fabulous fortepianos and two redoubtable Mozarteans. The fortepianos were contemporary instruments but carefully modeled on authentic forebears. Interestingly, American craftsmen built both. The one based upon a ca. 1805 original by Anton Walter und Sohn, a firm favored by Mozart, was crafted by Paul McNulty while in residence in Prague. The other, based upon a 1795 Johann Schantz original, a builder favored by Haydn, was made by Thomas and Barbara Wolf whose shop is located in The Plains, Virginia.

To hear not one but two fortepianos simultaneously in concert is a rare treat indeed, made even rarer by those who were playing them with such artistic finesse: Robert Levin and his wife Ya-Fei Chuang. Simply put, one would be hard-pressed to imagine a more thoughtful, precise, elegant and collaborative exposition of this nonpareil concerto. The Levin-Chuangs played together as if of one mind, constantly interlacing their filigreed figurations and tapering their phrases, artfully blending into one another’s sounds and senses. If the music were soft, it was gently caressed. If it were rapid and sonorous, it was brilliantly declaimed. With them all the way were Pearlman and his orchestra. In the second movement Mozart creates a moment of accompanying magic, when first one oboe suspends a solo note high and tellingly in the air, only to be joined complementarily a bit later by the second oboe, and the two hang in the air with one another for a delicious several seconds as the two fortepianos spin out their glowing harmonies below. Here was truly the moment of the evening to be cherished. Kudos are due oboists Marc Schachman and Lani Spahr for those moments of double-reeded wizardry.

High spirits returned in the third movement, with Levin-Chuang offering fleet and clean passagework always at the service of the score. Mozart’s original cadenzas were heard, as they had in the Concerto’s first movement. Once again, Pearlman and his players were their ideal accompanists. At the work’s cheerful close, well-deserved bravos rose up from the audience. The happiness of this occasion was visible on stage as well— smiles during the Concerto were seen across many players’ faces, and there was obvious affection and mutual respect between the Levins and Pearlman as they took their bows.

After intermission, Pearlman offered up interesting arrangements of Bach fugues drawn from the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier made by Mozart for a gathering at Baron Gottfried von Swieten’s residence, where the Baron’s fascination for “early music” by was indulged during soirees by the playing of Bach and Handel  in arrangements such as these.

BB’s concert closed with a spirited performance of Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony No. 36 in C Major, K. 425. In 1783 the composer and his wife Constanze were en route to Vienna and had stopped in Linz at the invitation of Count Thun. The Count then unexpectedly offered Mozart a public concert, and the composer worried that he had not brought with him a symphony appropriate for such an occasion. So, he wrote one, had it copied, and perhaps had one rehearsal of it, all in the span of six days, when the work was heard in concert for the first time—yet another Mozartean miracle, for the “Linz” is wholly extraordinary. It opens with a slow introduction, the first of the composer’s symphonies to do so. It also is scored for winds, trumpets, and tympani, the latter which are heard, unusually, in the second movement. Pearlman’s program notes point out that this was not so surprising in later symphonies, particularly those of Beethoven and a few late ones by Haydn. But for Mozart it was unprecedented. The players of BB rose handily to the occasion, only once or twice betraying a bit of lost grace perhaps due to fatigue from all the music they had made earlier, and maybe Pearlman’s penchant for very quick tempi. No worries, though—this extraordinary symphony emerged as the brilliant work it is, fully realized by all on stage. Again, kudos are due the winds, in particular bassoonists Andrew Schwartz and Marilyn Boenau, who produced lovingly nuanced tone.

I’d be a bit remiss, though, if I didn’t bring further praise to all the strings, who played more notes Friday night than anyone else on stage, and did so with great aplomb. If they had been reimbursed by the note, Friday night would have seen a passel of potential millionaires leaving Jordan Hall.

A wonderful evening, and as Richard Buell wrote so memorably at the end of reviews for concerts he particularly enjoyed, received with thanks.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 32 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 32 years.

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