What is Mozart’s music if not naked, pure, exposed, unadulterated, magnificent beauty?
A few weeks ago, we had the TSO’s season opener with accomplished pianist Kirill Gerstein making his first appearance in Taiwan, and it was a fine one. The NSO’s program for their season opener may have seemed on paper rather plain. The Berlin Philharmonic did it in 2013.
Last year’s NSO opener featured Leonidas Kavakos playing the Korngold Concerto, with Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben on the second half. The year before that, of all things, was Mahler 9. But this year’s season opener gives us no big-ticket soloist, nor any enormous, historical epic symphony. Or does it?
In answering the reasonable question of why the choice was made for an all-Mozart program, without some high-ticket soloist (the lack of which has its own financial benefits, perhaps), the Maestro responded by saying that Mozart’s music is a kind of panacea, a fountain, the waters from which all musicians should refresh themselves from time to time (I take liberties; it was in Chinese). The image is a strong one, and anyone who listens to Mozart’s mature work hears both the clarity and pure genius. It’s unadulterated, naked. Be it a piano concerto or a symphony, there’s no extra fluff, nowhere to hide deficiencies. It’s a pinnacle of sorts in music.
And yes, the final symphony of Mozart was at its time an epic symphony, the longest he’d ever written and probably the longest symphony up to that point, being completed in 1788. It premiered on August 10 of that year, making us just a month and some change past its 229th anniversary. But there’s also a bigger picture here, with the idea of the final three symphonies, 39-41, working kind of like three parts of a larger whole, and that effect is especially evident when they’re played back to back.
Before the concert, I was found by an associate, classmate of a regular concertgoing companion, and he said that he rarely listens to “such early music,” because it starts to “all sound the same”. And for better or worse, Mozart has become that poster boy of the polished, polite, powdered-wig classical era, but it’s so much more than elevator music, or music to sip tea to.
The grand introduction to the 39th symphony, and by extension this trilogy of final symphonic statements, began on a tightly-lit stage, the 49 performers spotlit with the rest of the stage veiled in black, creating a chiaroscuro effect that was not only atmospheric but enticingly suitable for the evening.
An unfamiliar set of timpani (and a new timpanist) rang out in this introduction, the very classical-era kettle drums looking as if they might have been performed at the premiere of the work. The orchestra from the get-go sounded refreshed, polished, as if everyone had good, soul-satisfying rest and some kind of enriching artistic experience, because the music was finely presented.
There’s a sweet spot in music like this, like in Schubert, not so slow as to be plodding, but not so rushed as to seem insincere. It’s not just about the tempo, though, but the spirit of the music, that should flutter and take flight in all the right places, a living, breathing thing, and that’s what it was.
The second movement of 39 was pristine in its stately, elegant tempo. Strings were lush but not soggy, winds full and round and warm. Maestro Lü’s reading had feeling and expression, but restraint and subtlety in all the right proportions.
Again, put them one after the other, and the bustling excitement of 39 ends abruptly, leading to the very famous 40, played faster than that Krips recording with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, but still not blazing. The third movement beautifully showcased the layers and texture contained in such a small movement, but by the finale of 40, the real richness of this music became apparent. This isn’t just pretty music to smile at or eat hors d’oeuvres to; it’s really very rich, quite hefty in its own right, and the impression I was getting of the choice of this program was one of a serious nature, absolute music, dedication to the highest of standards, and it was made perhaps more obvious by the maestro’s lack of smile.
After the interval, we got the final 41st, the ‘Jupiter’ symphony, and by this time, it was feeling like we were on a journey, accomplishing something of significance, even if it was only about 2 hours of music in total (with all the in between stuff).
I’ve been listening to lots of Bruckner lately, and while the men are worlds apart in so many ways, there is a sense of heft, of seriousness, of the majestic, of grandeur to Mozart’s work that can only be properly experienced when performed in this manner.
No play-by-plays tonight, but by that final fugal coda of 41, where the mature Mozart pulls out all the stops with all five motifs, someone intent on listening to the detail in this music, the supremely designed structures, is blown away by its genius, even in awe.
The result of the evening was somewhere between a solemn, almost sacred musical experience, and an enormous, magnificent banquet of exquisitely prepared food. The NSO played with focus and precision but also spirit and expression, and if this is a foretaste of things to come, then we are in for an even better season than last year, I dare say.
There was a maximum of 50 people on stage tonight, 49 plus a conductor, but tomorrow, on an extended, much more crowded stage, there will be more than ten times that number of performers for a very special occasion I’ve been looking forward to for some time. I hope to see you there, but for now, let’s take a moment to be thankful we have an orchestra like the NSO in our town. Here’s to another outstanding season.