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Majors and Minors

July 22, 2008

Two major masterpieces dominated Friday's opening of the annual Midsummer Mozart Festival as George Cleve conducted his merry band with two important soloists in Herbst Theatre. Each piece was a prelude to a somewhat lesser Mozartian work, but all of it was so well-presented that this hardly mattered.
Cleve opened with the Divertimento No. 7 in D Major, K. 205, and the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, with the impeccable Jon Nakamatsu as soloist. Following intermission, we heard the concocted Oboe Concerto in C Major, K. 271k, with Laura Griffiths as soloist and then the sensational Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504, the "Prague" Symphony. But hold on: The program wasn't entirely devoted to Mozart. As both of the opening two works are relatively short, Cleve allowed Nakamatsu time for a solo encore: Mendelssohn's Introduction and Rondo Capriccio, Op. 14 — which turned the evening into a kind of M & M experience.

Brightest jewel of the event was Nakamatsu's performance of the Concerto — and, for that matter, the Mendelssohn encore. The thing is, he plays with his brain, as well as his fingers. Every little detail was perfectly in place, yet with the occasional bit of inventive touch. Minor episodes of upper-keyboard wit would suddenly drop in dynamics for a few seconds, with a bit of French staccato humor thrown in. Such hints of playfulness struck me as ideal for Mozart's essentially pastoral Concerto. After all, Mozart loved practical jokes.

Yet when the tragic F-sharp minor Adagio movement came along, Nakamatsu probed the depths of despair in Mozart's darkest concerto movement. This he accomplished without distorting the normal tempo or dynamic markings. Rather, it was his seemingly endless variety of keyboard coloration and his astoundingly clean legato playing that dug so deeply into that emotion-drenched movement. I can't remember hearing a performance quite so perfect in all its parts.

A movement has been afoot to garner more Mozart works than actually exist in pristine form. It seems to be an outcropping of the academic publish-or-perish syndrome, causing those musicologists who are afflicted to take one work or composition, edit it heavily or transpose it, then claim it as a discovery. But in truth, those pieces — like the symphony numbered past the official 41 — are largely a combination of wishful thinking and musicological fooling around. We have a right to our cynicism where such creations are concerned.

It's known that Mozart wrote a full Oboe Concerto and left fragments of a second. The truth, however, is that the real oboe concerto has not been found. Instead, what passes for Mozart's Oboe Concerto these days is a transposed and mildly rewritten version of Mozart's Flute Concerto No. 2 in D Major, K. 314. We can be sympathetic with the effort, especially since the composers of the world have given us so very few oboe concertos of major worth. But this transcribed Flute Concerto fails to convince — at least, not me.
Silvery-toned Oboeist
Griffiths came to the role with an enormously impressive history. Currently she is principal of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, acting principal of the S.F. Opera Orchestra, and acting associate principal of the S.F. Symphony, previously having played principal with the Cleveland Orchestra and others.

Needless to say, she has a silvery tone that shone throughout the hall like a rainbow. Technical demands seemed effortless for her, even in extremely high registers. But at the same time, she tended to be quite literal in her phrasing. She plays very well indeed, but I had the sensation that she was more interested in playing her oboe than playing Mozart.

Mozart wrote his Divertimento No. 7 while still in his teens — probably in 1773. Laid out in the basic five-movement form, it consists of the basic four movements of a symphony, but with two minuets, each flanking the slow movement.

There are also oddities for a divertimento, like opening with a Largo introduction in the hymn style. That almost hinted at some of the music in his opera The Magic Flute. Largo, normally the slowest musical tempo, is rare in Mozart's work. Beginning a divertimento with an introduction is also most unusual. Normally, such pieces dive right into their first Allegro. Then too, the second Minuet ("Menuetto" if you must) contains a trio that's a real trio for the three winds: two horns and a bassoon. In each case, Mozart seems to be looking over his shoulder a bit at Baroque traditions.

Cleve reduced his string sections for the Divertimento, which were seated in classical style: first violins to his left, seconds to his right. Bravo for both concepts, for they lent a fine visual as well as sonic clarity to the score. He also took rather lively tempos for the first and last movements. That, too, turned out be effective, perhaps making the Divertimento sound finer than it actually is. Don't misunderstand me, it's quite a nice piece, but it falls a tad short of Mozart at his very best.
Whiz-Bang Presto
For that we could turn to the sensational "Prague" Symphony, one of his most complex as well as most endearing symphonic creations. The contrapuntal passages are miraculous, like a textbook model free of pedantries while glittering with exuberance. Conducting from memory, Cleve seemed to revel in it, including the observance of both the first movement and the finale's long repeats. A generally fine performance filled with glamour was knocked only slightly off kilter when the finale whizzed by at a 19th-century-type presto. True, that's the tempo marking, but at Cleve's very fast presto we listeners missed some of the intricacy in Mozart's textures.

Prague was, and remains, the most musically sophisticated of European cities, so Mozart could really let his wig down and give full reign to his imagination when writing for its music lovers. After all, besides the Symphony, Prague had gone gaga for The Marriage of Figaro following its disappointing Viennese run. Then Prague audiences had Don Giovanni written especially for them. The wonder is that Mozart failed to move there.

Playing a solo encore within an orchestral program is certainly unusual, but Nakamura had created such audience enthusiasm in the Concerto that he almost had to play one. His performance of the Mendelssohn was in fact so utterly superb that I think the audience would have welcomed a second and a third. He revealed himself yet again to be one of the major pianists on the world scene today.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.