February 26, 2008
Performing Mozart is easy, but also terribly difficult because the transparency of his compositions offers nowhere to hide. It’s like being naked on stage. A nigh-flawless performance is a rare occurrence, but when all the elements are in place, as they were Friday night for the San Francisco Symphony's all-Mozart concert under conductor Herbert Blomstedt, the results are awe-inspiring. Every single element sounded precisely placed, maximally musical.
Blomstedt offered three masterpieces, none overplayed, of different forms. He opened with the Divertimento No. 11 in D Major, K. 251 (sometimes known as the “Oboe Divertimento"), followed by the grand Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K.482, with the young American pianist Jonathan Biss as soloist. After intermission, we heard the Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504, "The Prague."
It made for a fine sampler, featuring one middle-period work, the divertimento, and two late compositions, the concerto and the symphony. As a surprising touch, the Friday performance included the first time I’ve seen a conductor turn a page, for his soloist, principal oboist William Bennett, while the performance was in progress. (But more on that anon.)
Aside from being a distinguished performing musician, Blomstedt also holds advanced degrees in musicology. He’s one of the few such conductors to observe all the niceties of 18th-century performance practice. He used classical seating: first violins to his left, seconds to his right. He conducted standing on the floor, without podium, and conducted with only his hands, minus baton. That’s Grade A for the Haydn-Mozart period.
More usual was Blomstedt's use of reduced orchestral size, yet each piece was geared to the particular needs of each work. The orchestra gradually expanded, piece by piece. For one example, he used only two double basses for the Divertimento, three for the Concerto, and four for the Symphony. So, too, the other string sections grew as the evening progressed.
Concerto No. 22 stands as one of Mozart’s most singular. It is technically in three movements, like all of the piano concertos, but with a slow minuet thrown into the middle of the finale. Then, too, the slow second movement is a set of double variations: two contrasting melodies instead of one. It opens with a heartbreaking theme of mild anguish, followed by a second theme that’s all sunlight and smiles. You hear a variation on the first theme, then a variation on the second, always preserving the character of the two themes. That process is followed throughout.
This concerto is longer and with a larger orchestra than Mozart's earlier concertos. Another unusual aspect is the prominence of the woodwinds. They play in the usual orchestral tutti, but they are frequently given material that has no participation from the strings. In that sense, you might call the K. 482 a concerto for three groups: the piano, the winds, and the full orchestra. It's like some kind of complex sinfonia concertante.
A Keyboard Triumph
There was another major strength for the Concerto in the utterly musical playing of pianist Biss. He is superb, displaying some of the most elegant pianism this side of Peter Serkin, although, oddly enough, his body English while playing most resembles that of Peter’s father, Rudolf Serkin.
Best of all, Biss, a student of Leon Fleisher, never forced or exaggerated volume levels or phrasings. Mozart on his own terms seemed paramount to his concerns. Fleisher's influence showed in Biss' utter seriousness and lack of grandstanding. Biss is clearly a major figure in today’s piano world.
To top things off, as Mozart left us no written cadenzas, Biss added two fine and stylish cadenzas of his own invention, one each to the first and last movements. I know of none better.
The six-movement Divertimento has the odd scoring of oboe, two horns and strings, with imported oboe solos sprinkled throughout, including a short cadenza. There were also important solos for concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, but at least he had a stand mate to turn pages. At one point, with the oboe in Bennett’s mouth and both his hands needed on the instrument, Blomstedt unceremoniously stepped forward to turn a page for him.
All the solos were crackerjack, and Blomstedt obviously enjoyed leading such merry music. It was such a feast that some in the audience broke into spontaneous applause twice. I can’t say that was at all inappropriate, everything considered.
Blomstedt's Mozart Mastery
Mozart has always been a major area of Blomstedt’s artistry. I can still remember his early and outstanding performance of the "Jupiter" Symphony as a calling card to local audiences. His ability to balance and clarify complex contrapuntal textures in symphonies such as the "Jupiter" and "Prague" — Mozart’s two most fugal — has been as fine as, or even better than, that of conductor George Szell.
And in the "Prague," the conductor has to constantly adjust textures as Mozart creates a modulation labyrinth, with constantly shifting keys, even more so than in the late Schubert works. All the while, Blomstedt kept the textures airy.
In Friday’s performance of No. 38 — which happens to be my favorite among the 41 symphonies — all those elements fused into a perfection that only a master conductor can bring to the score. The packed house rewarded Blomstedt and the orchestra with a well-deserved barrage of approbation.