With a timely replacement, Philharmonic’s Mozart and Britten program finds the common thread
The New York Philharmonic’s Tuesday night concert fell a little oddly between two different subscription programs, poaching pieces from each. For one night, listeners heard most of the program to come after Thanksgiving – the final three Mozart symphonies – and a work from last week’s all-Britten concerts: the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.
The musical concept was solid — Britten’s music continues on a path that Mozart laid out — but administratively and logistically it was a transitional concert, with some rough seams and a sense of incompleteness. There was also one bit of spectacular good fortune with a replacement artist.
Bookending the program were Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 and No. 41, the “Jupiter.” While he is not as prolific a symphonist as his older peer Haydn, Mozart’s late works are excellent and innovative. The far-ranging but tightly controlled harmonic motion that the composer developed in Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni supports stylish, surprising thematic lines, and there is a rich sense of sturm und drang that seems to come directly from the voice of the Commendatore from Don Giovanni. There is also Mozart’s typical rhythmic energy, charm and vitality.
Gilbert conducted the symphonies from memory, a testament to his preparation, which was only fitfully matched by the orchestra. Symphony No. 39 felt like a run-through for the main subscription program to come in a few days: there was plenty of verve but clearly too little preparation. The first violins, as a section, played surprisingly poorly, with sloppy notes in the Andante and loose intonation in the finale. Balances were indistinct as well, the woodwinds disappearing more than once into a dark, muddy sound.
The “Jupiter” symphony was the opposite, clearly well-prepared and with an intellectual substance to match the feisty, assured playing. Gilbert’s tempos were lively, as in the earlier symphony, but here the accents and phrases were sharp and full of excitement. The abstract Andante cantabile movement, one of Mozart’s most idiosyncratic and experimental passages, had a refreshing and idiomatic light touch. In the last movement, there is a slow, quiet woodwind chorale that flows in and out of the more aggressive and dominating string textures, and Gilbert led this with a intriguing sense of ad libito tempo, a testament to musical thinking.
Paul Appleby, one of the highlights of Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera last month, was the advertised vocal soloist for Britten’s piece. But Appleby was ill, and his serendipitous replacement was Anthony Dean Griffey—still in town after his brilliant performance in Peter Grimes last Friday at Carnegie Hall.
The Serenade is both Mozartian and Mahlerian, two of the composer’s heroes. Everything is a phrase, not just the solo lines for tenor and horn, but the string accompaniment is a constant series of shaped melodies, meant to be played with a sensation of breathing. The text is a collection of English poetry spanning several centuries, much of it haunted by death. At the core are a harrowing, anonymous fifteenth-century “Dirge,” and Keats’ “To Sleep,” set as the concluding “Sonnet.” The work ends with a sense of some comfort as the horn drifts from offstage, the last vestiges of earthly memories.
Before that, the music is first beguiling, then turns dark and ironic, even sarcastic. Meanings are evocative and many-leveled, and a polished performance like this from Gilbert, musicians and soloists, letting the music speak with a light interpretive touch, is the best way to hear them.
Griffey equals his peers in this music, Ian Bostridge and Mark Padmore, for beauty of sound. He’s far less mannered though, and his sense of phrasing is ideal for Britten, a composer whose most important value — learned from Mozart — was the phrasing of a line of music. Griffey simply sang and enunciated, and the strange beauty of the music took over. Principal Philip Myers was excellent throughout, modulating his colors expressively.
The New York Philharmonic plays Mozart’s final three symphonies starting 8 p.m. Friday. nyphil.org