Last night the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music hosted the second of the two concerts in this year’s Midsummer Mozart Festival. As was observed last week, Music Director George Cleve has consistently prepared programs consisting entirely of compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that are always rich in diversity. These programs tend to follow the conventional framework of an overture, a symphony, and music for one or more soloists; but last night Cleve broke with that convention with some impressive results.
Most impressive was his decision to conclude the evening with Mozart’s final piano concerto (K. 595 in B-flat major) featuring guest artist Seymour Lipkin. Lipkin turned 88 this mast May; but he is still going strong, serving on the faculties of both the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music. He has been a regular visitor to Midsummer Mozart for almost as long as I can remember attending the concert series, and his performances continue to be consistently impeccable.
While the manuscript for K. 595 is dated January 5, 1791, Alan Tyson made a strong case that the music was composed much earlier, based on the physical properties of the paper Mozart used. We should therefore be cautious about approaching the concerto as if it were some kind of “last word” in the canon of his piano concertos. (It certainly was not his last word in concerto writing, since the K. 622 clarinet concerto in A major was written later in 1791.)
In fact, when compared with many of the other piano concertos, K. 595 is relatively modest, at least in its surface appearance. However, there is no shortage of elegance beneath the plain-spokenness of that modesty on the surface; and the final movement almost seems like a reflection on better days when playfulness was the most salient quality of Mozart’s rhetoric. Lipkin’s approach seemed to find just the right dialectical synthesis of this opposition between elegance and playfulness, playing up the basic simplicity of the thematic material without ever neglecting the structural function of embellishment. Even if this concerto was far from a “last word,” Lipkin approached its multi-dimensional attributes as a summing-up of many of Mozart’s most effective qualities as a composer.
In many respects Cleve achieved the same results in his approach to the K. 385 (“Haffner”) symphony in D major, which opened the program for the evening. There is nothing subdued in how this symphony introduces itself to the listener, but the progression of the four movements allows Mozart to swing through a broad variety of moods of expression. Cleve knew exactly how to make sure that each movement spoke with its own distinctive voice, while, at the same time, treating the concluding Presto as the end of a journey whose path had been planned out by the opening Allegro con spirito.
As was the case last week, Cleve conducted only the opening symphony and the concluding concerto, leaving the rest of the program to Florin Parvulescu. This consisted of four opera excerpts to conclude the first half of the program and the K. 571 collection of six German dances to begin the second. Taking the controversy over the composition of K. 595 into account, K. 571 may well have been written within the same time frame as the concerto. It certainly shares the concerto’s quality of playfulness, even if that quality tends a bit more to the raucous side (and far more than a bit with the introduction of percussion for the final dance). Parvulescu knew how to bring just the right kind of spirited approach to this music, letting Mozart play his games without ever nudging the listener to make sure that (s)he got the joke.
The opera selections tended to be more variable in the satisfaction they provided. Eugene Brancoveanu opened with Leporello’s “catalogue” aria from the K. 527 Don Giovanni. He delivered this with impeccable diction and just the right amount of body language to compensate for the absence of a text sheet for this aria. The only problem was that, in the broader context of the opera itself, the aria is not so much about cataloging the Don’s accomplishments as it is about the interplay between Leporello and Donna Elvira, one of the Don’s “abandoned women,” now forced to listen to an account of all the others. Thus, while the aria is a familiar solo, its real richness resides in the context in which it is embedded.
The same could be said of Brancoveanu’s closing selection, the aria in the K. 584 Così fan tutte when Guglielmo realizes that what began as a bet and a game is starting to have serious consequences. This is a situation that needs more than body language; and, while there is no faulting the music itself, the meaning behind the music cannot emerge without first establishing the context. Lack of context was also a factor that undermined mezzo Tanya Mandzy Inala’s approach to Zerlina’s “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto,” also from Don Giovanni. In a contemporary culture that takes spousal abuse very seriously, the surface structure of this aria is anything but comic; and it demands skilled staging to make it at least palatable, if not dramatically compelling. Sadly, Inala lacked the body-language skills that Brancoveanu managed so well; and her diction was weak by similar comparison. The result left more than a little to be desired.
The two also performed the opening duet from the third act of the K. 492 The Marriage of Figaro. Brancoveanu captured the multi-dimensionality of Count Almaviva’s tension between noble authority and lust. Inala, on the other hand, offered little in portraying Susanna in this episode, which is a critical phase in a far more elaborate scheme. The result was a reading that could easily have been mistaken for a love duet, meaning that the listener would have been duped as badly as Almaviva. The fact is that narrative pervades even the reflective texts that Lorenzo Da Ponte provided to Mozart; and, for all of their musical virtues, none of the selections presented last night deserved to be deprived of the context that breathes life into this music.