Guest Artists Enliven the Mostly Mozart Festival

(Critic's Notebook)

Guest Artists Enliven the Mostly Mozart Festival

NEW YORK — Louis Langrée, the music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival — now through 2023, Lincoln Center recently announced — has, during his nearly two-decade tenure, revitalized the festival’s orchestra impressively.

Bringing in top-notch guest conductors has been central to his vision, and this year has been no exception. The eminent Andrew Manze led the festival’s first orchestra concert last month, and on Saturday, the formidable Gianandrea Noseda was at the podium at David Geffen Hall, leading distinguished performances of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Schubert’s “Great” Symphony.

Noseda, fresh off his triumphant second season as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, may be best known to New Yorkers for his regular performances with the Metropolitan Opera. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the soloist in the Beethoven, first came to attention for his fearless advocacy of challenging contemporary music. (Just three weeks ago at the Caramoor Festival, he played a brilliant and scintillating account of Messiaen’s “Catalog of Birds.”)

But Aimard has a wide repertory and was a penetrating soloist in the Beethoven concerto. Though the first movement is generally majestic, the music is propelled by stretches of fleet, restless runs. Aimard conveyed both the Apollonian breadth and the rippling animation of the movement in his crisp, radiant playing. The solemn slow movement in this performance was like a poignant dialogue between stern strings and a pleading piano. The dancing finale had buoyancy and glee, though Aimard and Noseda made the most of the moments when the music turns mystical.

The “Great” nickname has stuck to Schubert’s Ninth (and last) Symphony. But Noseda led such a lean, clear-textured and impetuously spirited account that the symphony seemed more like Schubert’s most adventurous piece. Even the slow movement, which unfolded with elegance and grace, had a touch of mystery, as Noseda drew out inner voices and emphasized the sudden shifts of mood.

That the playing of the orchestra was so strong and articulate on this night can be credited, in part, to Langrée’s nurturing. And the orchestra was again excellent Wednesday, in a program he led that began with the overture to Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” followed by a gripping account of that composer’s dark, elusive Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, with the thoughtful German pianist Martin Helmchen. (In a Little Night Music concert later, he played an arresting recital of solo works by Bach, Liszt and Franck.) The second half of the program featured a surging, glowing account of Brahms’s Third Symphony.

Before the concert, Langrée had spoken to the audience about the program. He’s a charming talker and should do this more often, though he oversold his main point by inviting everyone on a great “journey,” from an 18th-century Classical piece to a 19th-century Romantic one. This standard-repertory juxtaposition seemed hardly an “adventure,” as Langrée had described it.

He was on firmer ground pointing out that several festival programs that week were linked by a thread to Clara Schumann. (This year is the bicentennial of her birth.) Most pianists play Mozart D minor concerto with the cadenzas that Beethoven later composed for the first and third movements; Helmchen played cadenzas by Schumann, improvisatory-sounding music that shifted from stormy outbursts and impetuous harmonic wanderings to moments of tenderness. During a preconcert program, the refined pianist Ko-Eun Yi played Schumann’s lovely, lapping Nocturne in F, along with works by her husband, Robert Schumann, and Brahms, her lifelong friend.

And in a wonderful Little Night Music program, the superb soprano Susanna Phillips and the pianist Myra Huang offered a “soiree,” as they put it, performing ravishing songs by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Alma Mahler and, yes, Clara Schumann. These pieces are heard only rarely, which is shameful. I was especially excited by Schumann’s “Lorelei,” a turbulent setting of a Heine poem with a fiercely difficult piano part — clearly written by this composer to highlight her pianistic virtuosity, for which she was internationally renowned in her day. Huang dispatched it with seeming ease.

Langrée hasn’t enlivened Mostly Mozart with only guest conductors; he has also brought in major orchestras. On Sunday afternoon, Ivan Fischer led the justly acclaimed Budapest Festival Orchestra in vibrant, insightful accounts of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88; three Handel arias (with the dazzling Trinidadian coloratura soprano Jeanine De Bique, in her festival debut); and Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony.

Langrée was in the audience for Noseda’s and Fischer’s concerts — an encouraging, and telling, gesture of public support.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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