Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra – Andrew Manze, conductor; Thomas Zehetmair, violin. August 11, 2017.

David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.  Orchestra (Seat V109, $50).

Pre-Concert Recital
Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”) (1797) by Beethoven (1770-1927).  Vikingur Olafsson, pinao.

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806) by Beethoven.
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550 (1788) by Mozart (1756-1791).

The auditorium was quite full when we walked into it for the recital a few minutes before 6:30 pm, which was not expected.  Perhaps it also demonstrated the enthusiasm of the audience for these summer concerts.

Pathetique is a well-known sonata, and I certain enjoy listening to it.  Today was no exception.  The sound was crisp, the parts distinct, and contrast superb.  I do wish the pianist had approached this in a more mechanical way.  Beethoven’s music speaks for itself, there is really no need to exaggerate the fast and slow, in my opinion.

Given he took over from Martin Frost the clarinetist the music directorship of a Swedish music festival, I was surprised at how youthful the Icelandic pianist looked.  He was born in 1984, making him 33.

Somehow the Beethoven Violin Concerto is in vogue in recent years; I heard recent performances by James Ehnes, Nikolaj Znaider, and Pinchus Zuckerman.  Today’s performance unfortunately didn’t measure up to any of them.

The problem again was the soloist was trying to take too much liberty with what Beethoven intended (of course no one knows, but the score is a pretty good indication.)  Actually, it was close to disastrous when he first came in with the octaves, the sound was so poor that my first reaction was did he forget to put resin on the bow.  (To be fair, the sound improved as the performance continued.)  He was trying to start really soft and then build up the volume, it sounded tentative instead.  Throughout the concerto he made attempts to put his interpretation on the music, which were mostly ineffective.  The sound of the violin didn’t have the brilliance of a Stradivarius or the subtlety of a Guarnerius, although my ears could fail me.

The cadenzas were different from the ones usually performed with this concerto. Turns out Beethoven arranged this concerto for the piano as the soloist (first I heard of it), and wrote a cadenza for the arrangement.  The piano cadenzas were then arranged by Wolfgang Schnedierhan for the violin.  To me they mostly highlighted some of the techniques not demonstrated in the concerto proper (harmonics play a prominent role, for instance), but oftentimes it was difficult to see how they relate to the concerto proper.  Anne thought they were easier than the usual ones, although I am sure Zehetmair would have no trouble with them.

Zehetmair taking a bow as Manze looks on after the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

To compound my disappointment, the orchestra wasn’t at its top form either.  The horn had problems when it came in at the beginning of the slow movement.  Not the end of the world, but not the mark of a great orchestra either.

The audience was enthusiastic in its applause.  Zehetmair played an encore; I didn't get the title, and have no recollection of it a few days after listening to it.

Perhaps because of the Beethoven piece, I began to notice problems with the orchestra during the Mozart symphony.  One of the earliest problems I had with the MM Festival Orchestra was I could hear the individual players in the violin sections.  The problem had mostly disappeared in recent years, a testament to how the musicianship of the ensemble has improved.  Today some of that came back.

Mozart’s 40th Symphony is well-known, and usually enjoyable.  Many of the passages get repeated (especially the middle movements), but it felt longer than usual.  Again I attribute that to the quality of the performance.

Manze was his usual dependable self, conducting with quite a bit of vigor.

I do need to qualify all my comments with this being an enjoyable evening.  We had an early dinner at East Szechuan with Vivian and her parents, who were visiting from Hong Kong.  And the concert was of good quality.  At their best, a MM concert can rival that of a top orchestra, today they weren’t quite there.

Anne and I stopped by Hoboken to drop off something, so we got to New York at around 4:30 pm.  I made two separate purchases on Goldstar.com, but they were considerate enough to put all of us in the same row, which is great.  Parking was surprisingly easy for a summer Friday afternoon.  There were no problems coming back either, Anne and I did get some street food before we headed back.

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