Last night I attended a concert at Lincoln Center's "Mostly Mozart Festival" that was entirely devoted to music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with guest conductor Ivan Fischer directing the Mostly Mozart Orchestra, Concert Chorale of New York, and a group of vocal soloists in Ave verum corpus, K. 618, Symphony No. 41 "Jupiter", K. 551, and Vesperae solennes de confessore, K. 339.
Ave verum corpus is a late work of incredible beauty and spirituality. Maestro Fischer arranged for the members of the Concert Chorale to stand among the orchestra players, producing a marvelously cohesive and sonically blended performance. Immediately as the last notes softly died away, organist Kent Tritle began playing a recessional covering the departure of the choristers, which forestalled applause from the audience, which then miraculously remained silent as Fischer immediately launched into the opening fanfare of the symphony. It was really quite a stunning dramatic sequence.
The Symphony No. 41 was very well played in a slightly more restrained variety of the individualized approach that I heard from a different conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado, leading this orchestra a few nights earlier in the Symphony No. 40. Is this a new trend in the performance of Mozart's symphonies? The rather straightfoward, relatively uninflected performances that have characterized the performance of late 18th century symphonic music in recent years seem to be a thing of the past, as conductors are engaging in a more idiosyncratic approach to this music, playing with phrasing, bending tempo, and overall treating the mature Mozart symphonies as precursors of the romantic style that would overtake music in the early 19th century. It is an approach that works very well with the final three Mozart symphonies, and once again stimulates regret that the composer died so young. If he could write this music in 1788 at age 32, imagine what he would have been capable of writing, reflecting the influences of the younger generations (Beethoven, Schubert….), had he lived into the early decades of the following century?
The orchestra seemed to me a bit less technically immaculate than it sounded on Saturday night. In both cases I was hearing the second of two performances of the same program, but somehow the playing struck me as slightly less tidy this time around. No major errors, but just less tight ensemble, which may have even been Fischer's preference. Nothing disconcerting, however. I found the Andante cantabile (second movement) to be a real highlight of the symphony, and the audience evidently agreed, for there was enthusiastic applause, as there was after the first movement. I heard murmuring from the audience member next to me, saying "idiots" under his breath as the applause took place. Actually, applauding between movements was normal, accepted audience behavior in Mozart's time, and he would probably have been disappointed had his gorgeous slow movement not been applauded. Not applauding between movements of a symphony is a mid-to-late 20th century concert convention, and I find it frequently misguided, especially when a movement ends with a flourish inviting applause, or with an air of finality and no necessary dramatic connection to the next movement. In a Mozart symphony, the slow movement is typically followed by a Menuet of distinctly contrasting character, so there is no harm to continuity by the intervention of applause.
Mozart provided an odd orchestration for his rarely-performed Solemn Vespers for a Confessor, a product of his early 20s when he was still employed by the Archbishop of Salzburg and living at home under his father's wing. There are no violas or woodwinds (other than a bassoon usually doubling the low strings), but there is a full brace of trumpets, trombones and tympani. Although four vocal soloists are called for, the only true soloist is the soprano, who gets the lovely "Laudate Dominum" movement, which is frequently excerpted for inclusion in recorded programs of sacred music for soprano and orchestra. In my opinion, apart from the "Laudate Dominum," this setting of five Vespers Psalms plus a Magnificat is not Mozart at his most inspired. It strikes me as journeyman work, well constructed for its liturgical use but not showing any great melodic inspiration, certainly not in the league of the great C Minor Mass or the Requiem that were to come, and distinctly inferior in terms of ingenuity of word-setting to the vesper psalms composed by Vivaldi and Handel in the prior generation.
That said, it was performed with great enthusiasm and energy by Fischer, the Concert Chorale, and the orchestra, and it is worth bringing out such novelties from time to time … if only to remind us that Mozart was human, too. And it was worth it to have the chance to hear the "Laudate Dominum," exquisitely rendered by Lucy Crowe, in the context for which it was intended. Fischer interpolated chant before each movement of the piece, with a member of the chorus intoning a few lines in Latin, as would be done for a performance in the context of an evening church service in Salzburg. The individual voice sounded underpowered, and the effect could have been improved with a small unison ensemble.
All in all, however, this was a satisfying outing for Mostly Mozart. It was also interesting to note Music Director Louis Langr