NY Philharmonic – Mozart “Sort of” Finale

Last night I attended the NY Philharmonic's 15,394th concert (!!), part of the final week of the 2011-12 subscription season.  Rather than going out with a big bang calling for a huge orchestra or semi-staged opera as per the last few years, they went with a reduced orchestra in an all-Mozart evening, beginning with the 22nd Piano Concerto (Emanuel Ax), and concluding with the incomplete Mass in C MInor. 

Both works come from what might be called Mozart's "middle period," if such a short-lived man (175-1791) could be said to have a middle period.  The Mass movements were composed in 1782-83, and some of them may have been performed during Mozart's visit to Salzburg in 1783.  Nobody knows if he actually set the entire ordinary of the Mass, but these fragments survive – the Kyrie & Christe eleison, the Gloria, part of the Credo, and the Sanctus & Benedictus.  These fragments add up to almost an hour of music, so had Mozart completed it, it would likely have rivaled Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in length.  What remains is choice, however, one of my favorite Mozart compositions, an intriguing blend of the liturgical Mozart and the operatic Mozart.  (Several of the soprano solos sound like they belong in operas, not liturgical works.)  The entire thing is full of gorgeous melodies, unusually so for a liturgical work of that period.  The concerto dates from 1785.

Last night's performances were superb.  Alan Gilbert emphasized the drama – this was a sturdy, forward-moving Mass rather than a devotional one.  Joseph Flummerfelt's New York Choral Artists were impeccable, and soprano Jennifer Zetlan and mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano sang their several solos with great involvement.  The male soloists don't get to do much, and one speculates that Mozart would have given them solos in his completion of the Credo, the Dona Nobis Pacem, the Agnus Dei….  The tenor gets to sing only twice – as part of a trio with the sopranos in Quoniam, and as part of the quartet in Benedictus.  But the baritone has it worse – nothing to sing until that final Benedictus & Ossana movement – so he has to sit there more than 45 minutes keeping an involved look on his face until he finally gets to open his mouth.  That said, tenor Paul Appleby was splendid in his Philharmonic debut, and baritone Joshua Hopkins — I would travel to hear him sing.  (His solo recital CD is splendid and highly recommended.)

Emanuel Ax in the first half supplied his own cadenzas for the concerto, including a bit of a surprise – he wrote some brief bits for the woodwind soloists to chime in towards the end of his third movement cadenza.  Ax is superb in Mozart – urbane, flowing, conversational in tone, in short, just what Mozart wanted, to judge by his correspondence.  Everything should "flow like oil," he said, and in Ax's hands, it does. 

As this ends the regular season, it is worth saying that Alan Gilbert has done a great job of keeping up playing standards, refreshing the orchestra's repertory (the Mozart Mass was last played by them in 1991!!!), and involving the audience through his own introductory notes to the program, cluing us in as to why he picks a particular combination of pieces and what they mean to him.  As his tenure continues, it becomes ever more clear that the NYP made the right move in hiring him.  Now am anticipating the special end-of-season blowout next Friday at the Armory!!

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