On Friday night, the New York Philharmonic played a distinguished concert. It was all Mozart—and all Mozart of a certain kind: late Mozart. Which is a funny thing to say, given that Mozart died at thirty-five. All the music on the concert, with the exception of a brief piece, was written in Mozart’s final year, 1791.
(That was a full year, by the way: Mozart died in December. With Mozart, every minute counts.)
The concert began with the Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat, K. 595, Mozart’s last. But this is what must be remembered: Mozart did not know it would be his last. It was just another piano concerto—and a damn merry one too, especially in the rondo. But pianists and conductors try to invest it with great meaning. They make it autumnal and “profound”—and wrong. They try to turn it into a last will and testament.
Avoid this like the plague. Our performers, almost completely, did.
At the piano was Richard Goode, the veteran American. As usual, he was tasteful, smooth, and effective. Some of his passagework in the first movement was a little rushed, but this mattered little. The opening of the middle movement, he shaped purely and affectionately.
Overall, Goode was conventional, I would say—but I do not mean “conventional” as a putdown. I mean non-eccentric. This was Mozartean Mozart, the kind of Mozart you want.
I heard singing from the stage. Goode’s? I believe so. Was it as good as Gould’s? Hard to say.
Goode looked at the music—the score—all through. Right from the beginning. Every note. I don’t think he ever looked away. Some pianists get like this. In her final years, Dame Myra Hess also used music. So did Sviatoslav Richter. In addition, I heard singing from the stage. Goode’s? I believe so. Was it as good as Gould’s? Hard to say.
Leading the New York Philharmonic was a guest, Manfred Honeck, the great (yes) Austrian conductor who is the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The very first measures, he invested with suavity and refinement. The performance was instantly musical. It would remain that way, too.
In the audience, you could relax. With Goode and Honeck, everything would be fine (or better than). The Philharmonic’s principal flute, Robert Langevin, made a notably graceful and beautiful contribution.
After intermission, the concert went like this (to the best of my recollection): A percussionist played some somber, portentous notes on the chimes (or whatever that instrument is properly called). Then the orchestra played the Masonic Funeral Music, written in 1785. Then more chimes, I think. Then the Requiem—the parts that Mozart lived to complete, or at least lived to start or sketch. Then more chimes? I can’t remember. Then the Lacrimosa of the Requiem in the fragment Mozart left—his final notes ever. Then Ave verum corpus, his sublime motet. Then some concluding, dying chimes, ending the evening on a somewhat spooky note.
Was all this a bit gimmicky? Yes—but acceptable nonetheless, and without question sincere.
The Masonic Funeral Music, the Philharmonic played with beautiful gravity. Honeck conducted with care—but not too much care, if you know what I mean. He did not treat the music as a holy object, untouchable by human hands. He just brought the music out.
You could say much the same about the Requiem. And I have never heard a less staid Requiem. Honeck let it have its vitality, sweep, and incisiveness. The music was frankly exciting. It was neither “period” thin nor swollen. It had the ring of rightness. Honeck conducted with a combination of knowledge, musicality, and conviction.
Matthew Rose was the bass soloist, bringing the desired authoritativeness. Joélle Harvey was the soprano: guileless and well-nigh angelic. A young woman with the interesting name of Megan Mikailovna Samarin was the mezzo, filling the bill. And Ben Bliss (another outstanding name) lent his beautiful lyric tenor.
The chorus, the Westminster Symphonic Choir, proved well trained. Its director is Joe Miller, who succeeded Joseph Flummerfelt several years ago. Mr. Flummerfelt died at the beginning of this month.
May I just say, or ask, is there anything better than Baroque Mozart?
May I just say, or ask, is there anything better than Baroque Mozart? That is, is there anything better than when Mozart goes Baroque, as he does periodically, in the course of his thirty-five (Classical) years? I don’t think so.
Under Maestro Honeck, the Ave verum corpus was hushed and reverential. Also a bit slow, I think. I like it fuller, more substantial—and less slow. And less self-consciously holy. Yet I must consider the context: Honeck was using the motet as his coda to a spiritual evening. If he began a concert with the motet, it might be different, you know?
Allow me a memory, or aside: In 2012, Paul Johnson, the great British historian—and biographer of Mozart (among many others)—was the guest on Desert Islands Discs, the venerable BBC radio show. His very first selection was the Ave verum corpus.
On Friday night, Manfred Honeck did very well by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. They are, of course, sons of Austria, and sons of God.