Arts & Events

New: Philharmonia Baroque and Kristian Bezuidenhout Play Mozart

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday February 16, 2016 - 01:18:00 PM

In an All Mozart program which I attended on Saturday evening, February 6, in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra offered works from diverse periods of Mozart’s all too brief life. Under the direction of conductor Nicholas McGegan, the orchestra performed the 17 year-old Mozart’s Symphony No. 27 in G Major and the 32 year-old’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major. In between these symphonies, the orchestra was joined by internationally renowned early keyboard artist Kristian Bezuidenhout on fortepiano in the 29-30 year-old Mozart’s Concerto for Fortepiano No. 23 in A Major. 

The concert began with Mozart’s 27th Symphony. It is a decorous work, yet hardly suggestive of the greatness to come in Mozart’s career. A portentous opening consists of four loud chords, which, as Bruce Lamott’s Program Notes indicate, were meant to silence the audience as the music got underway. Lamott also notes that the ensuing first theme is spirited but harmonically unadventurous. The same might be said of the entire first movement, which proceeds in short phrases to a simple minuet. Only the agitated passages in the first and second violins interrupt the stately but unimaginative minuet. The second movement, marked Andantino grazioso, is a gentle serenade featuring muted violins, pizzicato lower strings, and paired flutes and horns. This is a dreamy movement, full of sighing appoggiaturas. The final movement, marked Presto, begins with the first movement’s opening four notes but sets them against a countersubject, as if in a fugue. However, this intimation of a fugue almost immediately gives way to a lowly waltz. In this ‘low’ style, the work rapidly comes to a close. All told, it is a fairly uninspired work. I would have preferred to hear Mozart’s 29th Symphony in A Major, which is generally considered the finest of his Salzburg symphonies. 

Next on the program was Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto in A Major, this time played on fortepiano by Kristian Bezuidenhout. A specialist in early keyboard instruments, Bezuidenhout here performed on a fortepiano built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf in Washington, D.C., after an instrument by Schantz, c. 1780. After a brief orchestral opening, Bezuidenhout enters playing delicate phrases on the fortepiano. The work is scored for flute, two clarinets, two horns, and bassoon, which form a woodwind chorus that is heard over the strings or in dialogue with them. There are also passages in which the woodwind chorus, called a Harmonie, engages in a dialogue with the solo piano. Mozart himself wrote out the two cadenzas played in this movement, the first leading to the recapitulation and the second coming at the close of the first movement. The second movement, an Adagio, opens with solo piano, soon joined by winds and strings. Everything here is delicate, as if we were listening in on intimate personal feelings expressed in sighing phrases of melancholy. This intimacy is continued in descending chromatic lines and pregnant pauses. A throbbing pizzicato passage momentarily agitates the gentle rocking rhythm but the music simply fades away. The final Presto gets off to a rollicking start full of exuberance. There ensues, however, a brief disturbance of the generally optimistic mood, as plummeting phrases in the piano answered by sighing woodwinds add a note of emotional turmoil. This is soon dissipated, however, and the coda brings the work to close with a happy ending. Throughout this 23rd Piano Concerto, the delicate sonority of the fortepiano, as opposed to the fuller, larger sonority of the modern piano, offered us the opportunity to hear this work the way it would have sounded in Mozart’s day; and Kristian Bezuidenhout gave us a brilliant, memorable performance. 

After intermission, the orchestra returned to play Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major. This is the first of the three great, final symphonies Mozart composed in 1788, and it features music that reminds us of the brilliant overture to the opera Don Giovanni. The work begins with a French-style overture full of commanding majesty. The Allegro offers a gentle minuet with a long transition to the second key. In the second key, Mozart separates the woodwinds from the strings over a drone-like bass.  

In the second movement, the strings introduce a rondo form. The winds then play together in a choral mode, before resuming their role of providing harmony over the bold phrases of the strings. A bit later, the winds – here a bassoon, two clarinets, and flutes – almost function as a wind ensemble. (Note that this symphony, and this one alone, does not include an oboe.) In the rustic trio of the third movement, the two clarinets interrupt the stodgy minuet by playing a folk dance Ländler from the Alpine region. The final movement, marked Allegro, offers a lively, exuberant romp in which the flute, clarinet, and bassoon engage in animated dialogue with the strings, bring this great symphony to an exciting close. Throughout this work, and indeed throughout this entire concert, the conducting of Nicholas McGegan was outstanding in its combination of taut structures and delicate passagework.