Spectacular Mozart/Beethoven/Schubert Evening at Mostly Mozart

Last night I attended the Mostly Mozart Festival concert conducted by Osmo Vanska, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra.  They performed Mozart's brief Symphony No. 32, K. 318 (1779), Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 37 (1800-03) — with Rudolph Buchbinder as soloist — and Schubert's Symphony in C Major (1825-28), usually referred to these days as the Symphony No. 9.  I thought this concert qualified to be called "spectacular" at several points, particularly in the final movement of the Beethoven and the last three movements of the Schubert.

Mozart's Symphony No. 32 is a relatively early work, despite the deceptively high number. The composer was in his early 20s when he wrote it, and had with rare exceptions to that time composed short, three-movement sinfonias that were more akin to opera overtures than to what we have come to know as the classical symphony.  Within a few years, he was writing the four-movement symphonies on a larger scale that we now equate with the late symphonies of his mentor, Josef Haydn.  By these standards, No. 32 is an amusing trifle, less than ten minutes long, but nonetheless a highly polished achievement by the young composer.  The orchestra played it with efficiency and enthusiasm.

I've heard Buchbinder play several times now, and I always come away more impressed than I had expected to be.  Although he has played with the major orchestras and has done quite a bit of recording, somehow Buchbinder hasn't broken through to the status of the top pianists.  But his performance of the Beethoven was excellent, especially in the finale where he entered fully into the humor of the music and stirred great enthusiasm in the audience.  Vanska and the orchestra provided alert accompaniment.

The Schubert 9th is an enormous challenge for any orchestra.  Robert Schumann wrote about its "heavenly length."  It is, in fact, a startling achievement by comparison to the composer's prior completed symphonies.  The B Minor Symphony, the two-movement-plus-sketches torso commonly referred to as "The Unfinished Symphony," gives a hint of the new, broader scale on which Schubert was thinking, with its two completed movements each lasting more than ten minutes in a typical performance, but the scale of the C Major symphony is grander yet, stretching towards an hour when all marked repeats are taken, as Vanska did last night.

My first exposure to this work, which has become one of my favorite symphonies, was through the Mercury recording by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and what was then called the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.  Skrowaczewski's approach was fast-paced, eschewing some repeats, and even a bit hectic in my recollection.  (I haven't listened to it for a long time, although I do have the CD reissue of the old LP of my acquaintance.)  I found it interesting, if overly repetitious.  I later became acquainted with classic recordings by Toscanini (both Philadelphia Orchestra and NBC Symphony), Furtwangler, Krips, Szell…  But the performance that really persuaded me of the genius of this piece was my first live exposure: Klaus Tennstedt and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in January 1977.  I attended a Thursday night subscription concert and was so excited that I made off-air cassette dubbings of the live broadcasts of the Friday and Saturday repeats.  (In those days, the BSO was broadcast live on different dates by WGBH and WCRB – I have no idea if that is still the practice today.)  Those tapes were quickly worn out from frequent playing on an inferior cassette deck.  Tennstedt's commercial recording of the symphony with the London Philharmonic was unfortunately not as exciting; he was best before an audience.  And this is borne out by an LPO broadcast recording that the BBC more recently issued on CD, which comes very close to my memories of those Boston performances from 1977.

Last night's performance by Vanska and the Mostly Mozart orchestra came close to capturing that same excitement for me, at least in the last three movements.  The first poses the most difficult in terms of tempi.  Tennstedt figured out a natural relationship between the opening andante and the transition to the ensuing Allegro ma no troppo that seems to have eluded most conductors.  Somehow he figured out a way to make the beginning of the Allegro light-footed, unlike the somewhat ponderous approach that seems to prevail.  Vanska's Allegro did not quite achieve this until the arrival of the second thematic group, a jaunty woodwind tune, when suddenly the tempo seemed to come up just a smidgen and things seemed to flow better.  The recurrence of the first thematic group marked a slight gear-shift to the slower, more ponderous tempo.  I don't even know if this is conscious on the conductor's part; the rhythm and orchestration may just lend themselves to this effect.  But the bottom line is that I found the first movement less than fully satisfying.

After that, however, I was fully on board with everything Vanska was doing.  The second movement, an innocent, even insouciant-sounding march (andante con moto) moved right along and developed the depth and tragedy that make it so startling.  The scherzo was superbly done, coming very close to capturing the special floating quality that Tennstedt achieved (and achieves in his LPO broadcast recording) that also seems to elude many conductors.  The finale always strikes me as a very festive piece, especially as the coda approaches, and Vanska and the orchestra whipped up a perfect storm.

Comparing the Mostly Mozart orchestra to the BSO or the LPO is unfair, of course.  These players, talented NYC free-lancers, are brought together for a few months in the summer to play these concerts.  They don't have the opportunity to develop the ensemble and precision of a full-time orchestra that operates year-round, and they have about half the rehearsal time for each program that a regular symphony orchestra has, since they are presenting two different full-length programs each week.  In light of that, one expects less precision, and that's what one gets.  But what counts here is the great enthusiasm with which they play, the excellence of the wind soloists, and the valiant efforts by the violins in particular to make a convincing show of the finger-breaking fast repeated figures that Schubert demands from them, especially in the finale.  Just surviving this piece is an accomplishment.  Making a convincing artistic statement, as they did last night, is a very great accomplishment.

After hearing this concert last night, I read the Times review this morning.  The critic had attended the first performance of this program, on Tuesday night.  There is a reason why I usually try to go to the second performance at Mostly Mozart: The shortened rehearsal time for each program.  The second performance is usually going to be better than the first, if only because the orchestra is more familiar with the conductor and the music after having had one public run-through of the program.  But what bothered me about the review was the condescending way the critic treated the Schubert symphony – not the way it was played but the piece itself.  I've noted that several critics seem to have a blind spot where this symphony is involved.  They focus on the repetitions and the occasional miscalculations of orchestration by a composer who had little opportunity (and perhaps none, where this piece is concerned) to have heard their music played by a first-rate ensemble and adjusted orchestration based on experience.  Mahler thoroughly revised each of his symphonies after rehearsing and playing them.  Bruckner put his symphonies through multiple revisions.  Brahms was a great reviser.  Schubert rarely had access to the opportunity, and it seems that this symphony was not played publicly during his lifetime and was only discovered as an unpublished manuscript long after his death.

I suspect that had Schubert been given the opportunity to hear his symphony rehearsed and performed, he would have undertaken significant revisions.  At the world premiere performance long after Schubert's death, Mendelssohn, who was conducting, made various cuts in the piece, and it would be interesting to hear what he did, but I'm not aware that the specification of his editing survives.  The full manuscript was published, and today that's what people play.  (It was long customary to omit the first movement exposition repeat, which I think is a good idea, but most conductors today play it.) 

What strikes me about this piece, every time I hear it, is how unprecedented it was in its breadth and scale, how good the orchestration is when one considers that it was a piece the composer never got to revise after hearing a performance, and how – with the right combination of conductor and orchestra – it can be an exhilarating experience for the listener. 

One final observation:  The impact of Tennstedt's performance is undermined at the end by his adoption of a marking in the score that many believe to be a transcription error.  In setting the manuscript in type, the first publisher read what may have been intended by Schubert as an accent mark to be instead a diminuendo.  So at the end of a rapidly bustling and blustering coda, the final chord is held and faded.  It just sounds wrong, and most conductors don't accept it, holding the chord loudly for its full value.  Tennstedt emphasized the diminuendo.  Vanska also played the diminuendo, but made it short.  If the original manuscript score survives somewhere, it would be great for somebody to go back to to try to solve this puzzle once and for all.  I vote for the accent mark.  The diminuendo doesn't make sense to me as a conclusion to that movement.

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