Just Barely Mozart

yanick nezet seguin Just Barely MozartWhen Jane Moss, the Mostly Mozart Festival’s artistic director, throws her hands up and themes this year’s series as “Six Degrees of Separation,” you know this isn’t about Mozart anymore. Haydn, dead 200 years in 2009, and John Adams, whose opera A Flowering Tree is loosely inspired by The Magic Flute, are Mozart’s special friends this year, but so are Bach, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Ligeti and Stravinsky. Given the generally strong performances, and enthusiastic audiences, that I witnessed over two weeks of concert-going, who cares?

There may be no official piano festival contained in this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival, which runs through Aug. 22, but the first run of concerts almost seemed that way, hardly inappropriate since the Salzburg prodigy was not exactly a slouch at the instrument. I went to hear Piotr Anderszewski’s opening, all-Bach concert in the “Little Night Music” series at the Kaplan Penthouse on July 29 with considerable anticipation: His reputation is richly deserved, based upon his solid tone, flawless technique and grand, but not grandiloquent, style. The Partita No. 6 in E Minor was impressively, if somewhat stiffly, dispatched, reaching an unexpected climax in the melancholy Sarabande, which opened up with glorious sweep. The English Suite No. 6 in D Minor may be a more public, playful and somewhat artificial kind of piece, but Anderszewski gave it revelatory force. A cogent and lyrical account of its Sarabande was followed by a Double—a variation—so knowingly performed that it let us glimpse the secret inner life of the dance that had preceded it. The two Gavottes offered similar pleasures; No. 2 was an essay in sheer magic, its clanging rhythms delivered with radiant colors and a crystalline touch.

Two concerts with the Mostly Mozart Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall featured fine performances (heard on Aug. 5 and 8) by the pianists Nicholas Angelich and Stefan Vladar, respectively, but their conductors interested me more. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s debut at the festival, heralded by a Sunday Times preview, was a momentous occasion. English Canada seems devoid of conductorial talent, but what is it about Quebec? Some six years ago, the absurdly underrated Bernard Labadie was turning in splendid performances at Mostly Mozart and at Glimmerglass, and now his younger colleague has appeared to carry on what seems to be a vibrantly lyrical national style.

Trained partially as a choral conductor, Nézet-Séguin is unashamed to express his elemental love of music. Having sat through Pierre Boulez’s catatonic rendition of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella last season at Carnegie Hall, I was not relishing a repeat of the score. But Nézet-Séguin’s rendition, with its pungent orchestral colors and crisply percussive rhythmic patterns, proved that this so-called neoclassical throwback came from the same pen that wrote The Rite of Spring. His interpretation of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony had a hard, driving swing at times, but none of the highlighted detail (a timpani whack, a thrust from the violas) disrupted the elegance of the total, silken texture.

And while we’re celebrating things French, let’s not forget Louis Langrée, the festival’s music director, who turned in one of the most impressive performances of his tenure on Aug. 8. France is not known as Brahms country, and Langrée’s account of the Fourth Symphony, the highlight of the evening, did not try to bring that vertical brand of German “profundity” to the composer’s valedictory Fourth Symphony; in a fleet but not flighty interpretation, it wore its autumnal colors lightly.

Phrases made soft landings, but sojourned to interesting places along the way, especially in the third and fourth movements, when something downright demonic began to bubble up to the surface—this was Brahms’ farewell to the liberal, German-Jewish musical culture that had nurtured him, and he knew that Vienna would soon see dark days. The wind section of this not-quite-perfect orchestra sometimes produced a slightly sour corporate sound, but Demarre McGill, the principal flutist, handled his mournful solo in the last movement with uncommon beauty and restraint.

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