Last night the Mostly Mozart Festival presented a no-Mozart concert – a rarity this month! Only two works on the program: Stravinsky's Symphony in C and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. Music Director Louis Langree conducted, and Nelson Freire was soloist in the Beethoven, for a program a bit short by MM standards (about an hour and a half, including intermission).
A complicating factor last night, which may explain some of the empty seats, was a violent rainstorm with thunder and lightning that hit Manhattan about 45 minutes before curtain. I got soaked, even with my umbrella, going the block and a half from my apartment to the subway to ride one stop to Lincoln Center. I had purchased the ticket spontaneously in the afternoon, realizing that if I didn't go to this one I would miss Louis Langree entirely this year – lots of guest conductors… When I hit the ticket window, there were almost no tickets available in the area I wanted, but on the night there were empty seats where tickets had been sold…. So I got to sit where I preferred!
Too bad for those who didn't make it, as they missed a very good concert.
I have always preferred Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements to his Symphony in C. Stravinsky was not an original melodist of much distinction, the most interesting facets of his music being rhythm, harmony, and orchestration. (His most memorable tunes usually turn out to be derived from Russian folk songs.) The Symphony in Three Movements actually has some interesting original melodies, but I don't find there to be as much melodic interest in the Symphony in C, which is more on the severe side. (Perhaps that's the link to Beethoven, much of whose music is built up from short motives rather than extended melody.) That said, I thought Langree and the orchestra made the most of the material they were given by the composer. This was the first night of two performances, with the truncated rehearsal schedule of festival programming, but they sounded very sharp to me, good ensemble, excellent solo work… But I still find my interest in this piece starts to fade during the third movement and my mind wanders away during the finale, which sort of peters out to nothingness.
More to my taste is Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto, the most interesting and provocative of the five he wrote. Nelson Freire made a big splash with a debut LP set of romantic piano concerti back when I was a kid, but has been in and out of the limelight since then. The Brazilian pianist has fine technique, but his real strength is his poetic interpretive skill, which is very well suited to this particular concerto. His recent Chopin and Liszt solo recordings make the point well: This man is a true poet of the keyboard, and all that sensitivity was on display last night, the second movement dialogue with the strings a special highlight. As well, of course, he has the necessary chops to do justice to Busoni's cadenzas, familiar to me from the very first recording of this concerto that I got to know as a kid, the 78s in my father's collection by Artur Schnabel, Frederick Stock, and the Chicago Symphony. (Dating myself here!)
My first purchase in this repertory was Arthur Rubinstein, Krips and Symphony of the Air (the post-Toscanini NBC Symphony core), a complete contrast to Schnabel. This piece can take many different approaches, but I think the poetic approach works best, and Freire really nailed it last night. In light of the shortness of the program, it's not surprising they let him play two encores. The first was Gluck's "Melodie" from "Orpheus & Euridice" I'm not sure if it was the Sgambati transcription that was a popular encore number from early in the 20th century – the accompaniment seemed "busier" than I remembered from the recordings. But it was exquisitely played. I couldn't identify the second encore, although it was clearly of South American origin. Villa Lobos? Anyway, it was a memorable concert from Langree and Freire.
And, luckily, by the time it was over, the rain had stopped!