Mozart, alpha and omega, with a Haydn-Stravinsky centerpiece from van Zweden, Philharmonic

Thu Jan 31, 2019 at 11:34 am
Emanuel Ax performed Haydn and Stravinsky concertos with Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Emanuel Ax performed Haydn and Stravinsky concertos with Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

No database nor tally appear to exist, but one thinks it would be safe to wager that sonata form is the most widely used formal device in the entire classical music literature. The basic method of statement, development, and recapitulation is too logical, flexible, and effective to ever go out of style.

The New York Philharmonic’s concert on Wednesday night could be looked at as an exploration of the utility of sonata form through a classical era perspective. That may not have been music director Jaap van Zweden’s idea when he put together the program, but the strengths and weaknesses heard in David Geffen Hall depended on the quality of sonata form, both as written and as played.

Bookended by Mozart—his Symphony No. 1 and his last, the “Jupiter” symphony (No. 41)—the concert also featured two performances from pianist Emanuel Ax, who played Haydn’s Piano Concerto No. 11 and Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 1 is rarely heard because, despite the composer’s name, it isn’t very good. Written (apparently) by the eight-year old prodigy himself, with amendations by his father Leopold—and likely by his older sister Nannerl too—the three movements have the sound of a young composer exploring both sonata and symphonic form. There are some clever dissonances and the energy that is in everything Mozart made, but there is no no particular style or imagination. Some of the harmonic motion may surprise momentarily, then one realizes how predictable the resolution will be, nothing like the marvelous twists and turns that would come in the years to follow. The Philharmonic played this warmly but could not supply what was not there. 

The orchestra played Haydn’s concerto with equal warmth, and as the composer was a genius with form, it proved much more  enjoyable. But as a whole the concerto was frustrating—Ax and the orchestra were coordinated and the pianist’s articulation and rhythms were clear and precise—but the textures never fit together. Like two characters using the same words but with entirely different ideas about their meanings, the Philharmonic sounded mellow and grainy, yet Ax’s piano was dark and heavy. The soloist didn’t appear to have the same sense of direction and purpose, his phrasing in the first movement occupying a bland middle ground between legato and tenuto.

After intermission, Ax and orchestra sounded right at home and together in an excellent performance of Stravinsky’s Capriccio. A concerto in all but name (and misnamed in a way, with so much stern, dark music inside) the technical and expressive coordination between soloist and musicians was ideal. The synchronization of numerous gears is at the heart of Stravinsky’s neo-classical music, and beyond that Ax was sympathetic with the music’s ironic, inside-out aesthetic, which puts gesture and ornament at the center and teases and honors the models Stravinsky admired. There was an exciting swagger in the way Ax played the hip first movement bass line. Ever a favorite of Philharmonic fans, Ax bid adieu for the evening with an encore of “Des Abends” from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12.

When Mozart got to the “Jupiter,” forty symphonies later, he was a genius of sonata form, and his last symphony is one of the greatest such works in the repertoire and one of the most incredible explorations of the possibilities of the sonata. This is particularly true of the Molto allegro finale, which contains a dazzling five-voice fugue within the larger form. The symphony also captures some of Mozart’s deepest expression, a sense of exalted joy grounded by a mature, centered feeling, both introverted and extroverted. 

But the music doesn’t play itself, and van Zweden and the orchestra delivered  a marvelous performance. Phrasing in the strings had an attention to detail and musical meaning that showed in every variation in shape and dynamics, and the balance with the cooler colors in the winds was excellent.

The dynamism of Mozart’s internal energy is irresistible—beyond that the complex sense of life and experience in the music boiled up through the orchestra and out into the audience.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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