Entertainment :: Music

Mostly Mozart: Schubert and Brahms

by Jonathan Leaf
Contributor
Tuesday Aug 21, 2012
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Violinist Joshua Bell
Violinist Joshua Bell  

Genius is different.

If anyone at a pair of "Mostly Mozart" concerts last week thought that it was something you could just acquire, like a new set of table linens on sale at Macy’s, they were slapped in the face and shown otherwise.

Here was proof that genius is no more teachable than good taste is to a Kardashian.

On Tuesday, the Festival Orchestra appeared under the baton of veteran Finnish conductor Osmo Vanska as Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder performed Beethoven’s "Third Piano Concerto." This work was matched in the concert’s second half with Schubert’s "Ninth Symphony."

Vanska has gained a tremendous reputation in recent years, first by conducting Sibelius in his native land and then by conducting Beethoven in the United States. Yet these performances were with orchestras he knew and was comfortable with.

Regrettably, this was not the case here as the orchestra often seemed either not to be picking up his cues or to be following hurriedly, trying in rushed fashion to catch up on his pell-mell gestures.

The result was an evening of mostly shapeless music.

Joshua Bell is simply the greatest violinist in the world right now, and the rapturous response of the crowd at the piece’s end showed that few in audience did not know this.

Strangely, this problem may actually have been magnified by the sometimes gorgeous and understated playing by Buchbinder in the concert’s first half. Eschewing the pedal and overuse of rubato, Buchbinder gave an impressively sensitive and refined reading of the first movement of Beethoven’s concerto. But, in the piece’s second movement, which is marked largo, Buchbinder played the piece with a range of tempi varying down to very, very, very slow, and the orchestra was left without a clear sense of what pace to play.

Still, the magnitude and the distilled power of the two composers was inevitably palpable.

This shone through still more clearly in a concert three days later featuring a work of Mozart juvenilia, Schubert’s early Fourth Symphony" and Brahms’ "Violin Concerto."

In this case, the three notable geniuses who boldly proclaimed themselves were Mozart, Brahms and violinist Joshua Bell.

Mozart’s "Symphony #1" is credited to Mozart at age eight. Most musicologists believe that the composer’s father Leopold, a well-known expert on orchestration, must have rewritten them, at least in part. Granted how charming and delicious the brief piece is it seems hard to imagine that Mozart could have written it simply by himself at such an age.

Regardless, it is intimidating in the way that the Alps are. This is talent as a force of nature.

Yet far more memorable was Bell’s performance of Brahms’ concerto. It was almost flawless. The playing displayed showmanship and command, beauty of tone and poetry, feeling and soul, and speed and flair in the handling of the piece’s numerous difficult staccato passages.

Bell is simply the greatest violinist in the world right now, and the rapturous response of the crowd at the piece’s end showed that few in audience did not know this.

"The Mostly Mozart Festival" runs through August 25 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. For info or tickets call 212-721-6500 or visit www.mostlymozart.org.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.

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