Saturday, August 18, 2012

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Osmo Vanska, conductor; Rudolf Buchbinder, piano. August 15, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra Left (Seat J5, $46.50).

Pre-concert Recital
Sonata No. 8 in C minor (“Pathetique”) (1797) by Beethoven.

Symphony No. 32 in G major, K.318 (1779) by Mozart.
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor (c. 1800-03) by Beethoven.
Symphony in C major (“Great”) (c. 1825-28) by Schubert (1797-1828).

This time we got our discount tickets at the Atrium.  While they sent out an email the day before saying tickets were available, we weren’t sure there would be any left since we would get there only a couple of hours before the concert.  We were prepared to just have dinner and then go back to NJ, though.  The seats we got actually were very good, with a good view of the piano but not so close that it would be the dominant instrument we would hear, as we did at the last concert.  We also made it to the preconcert recital, that meant we only had about 15 minutes to purchase and gulp down a sandwich at the Expresso Bar.

The Pathetique sonata probably ranks as the top 5 most popular work of that genre by Beethoven.  (Let me guess, Moonlight, Waldstein, and Appassionata being another 3.)  What I didn’t realize was that it was written relatively early in Beethoven’s life.  It has three movements: Grave – Allegro di molto e con brio; Adagio cantabile; and Rondo: Allegro.  To my ears, the piece is so familiar that there probably aren’t that many new and inventive ways to play it.  That is mostly true of tonight’s performance, except the soloist sometimes placed a stronger than usual emphaisis on the left hand when it had the melody, a bit much perhaps.  A good rendition of a Beethoven sonata is always enjoyable, as was this performance.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 32 may have been intended as an overture to the opera Zaide, which Mozart never finished, and was instead used as an overture for an opera by Bianchi (evidently with Mozart’s blessing.)  That may explain why it was relatively short at an advertised nine minutes, and that it was played without a break, although there were several sections.  The piece has a symmetry to it that was rather easy to catch, and rather interesting.  The other noteworthy aspect was the use of a relatively large orchestra, including flutes, trumpets, and four horns.  There is some doubt if Mozart wrote the part for the timpani, though.  I got all this from David Wright’s informative notes, which helped in my appreciation of this composition.

The piece turned out to be shorter than I expected.  The gentleman sitting next to me observed that I was looking at my watch and asked me how long it was.  Seven minutes, I think.

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto is quite popular, and the best thing to do is just to sit back and enjoy it.  Its three movements are Allegro con brio, Largo, and Rondo: Allegro.  Buchbinder took it at a relatively fast pace, and the orchestra sometime had trouble keeping up.  By and large I did manage to sit back and enjoy it.

If I were asked how long Schubert’s longest symphony was, I would have guessed (with no basis) forty minutes.  Turns out tonight’s symphony is close to an hour in length; it is not called “Great” for no reason.  It has four movements: (i) Andante – Allegro ma non troppo – Piu moto; (ii) Andante con moto; (iii) Scherzo: Allegro vivace – Trio; and (iv) Finale: Allegro vivace.  Usually I think of Mahler or Bruckner when a symphony of this duration is mentioned, and those would be written decades later.  While no doubt considered epic in its day – indeed it might have been rejected by the Vienna Philharmonic for its length and difficulty, and Schubert substituted the “Little” in its stead – it is relatively easy to follow.  You don’t hear the complex harmonies or the wanderings that characterize the “modern” symphonies, instead the signature Schubert techniques of propulsion (my term for moving the music along) and key changes are abundantly clear.  It is interesting to listen for these techniques, and I am still in awe of how adeptly themes in major and minor keys are woven together.  Despite the Annotator’s claim that not one note can be taken out of this tightly written piece, it felt a bit long.

A couple of additional observations (added after this blog was first posted).  One is the conductor took all the repeats, and sometimes had to fumble through the score to find the right place.  No worries though, he managed to get through without any problems.  The other more serious comment is there didn't seem to be much breathing in this symphony.  Every movement seems to be one long breath, which for a 14-minute movement can be a bit exasperating for people like me.  I listened to another Schubert symphony on my iPod, certainly there were breaks in the phrasing.  I am listening to "The Great" by the Vienna Philharmonic as I type this paragraph.  So far (about 6 minutes into  the first movement) there hasn't been any yet.

I do have a small issue with the otherwise excellent Notes, again written by David Wright.  There seems to be an obsession with the key signatures, especially in the case of Beethoven.  This kind of analysis may be appreciated by someone with perfect pitch.  My pitch is pretty good (often perfect when it comes to tuning a violin), yet phrases like “the remote key of E major” do not mean much to me.

This year’s Mostly Mozart series of concerts has worked out quite well.  Ticket prices (after discount) are reasonable, traffic into and out of town not that bad, and the performances have been enjoyable.  We have tickets to another one next week.  If they are offering more discounted concerts …

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