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Bloodless Coup

New Jersey
Prudential Hall
03/03/2002 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concert Rondo K 382; Piano Concerti Nos. 21 & 24
Robert Levin (fortepiano)
Academy of Ancient Music
Christopher Hogwood (conductor)

Paradoxically, what turned out to be the most thought-provoking concert of the season was also one of the dullest as Christopher Hogwood brought fortepianist Robert Levin and the Academy of Ancient Music to New Jersey to offer their impression of the actual atmosphere of a concert given by Mozart. All of the instruments were in the style of the originals, the fortepiano a replica of one built in the 18th century, the winds actually made of wood, the cute baby kettledrums struck by a seated player, the horns natural and in need of manual crook changing. The size of the ensemble was a bit larger than I had expected, but I won’t quarrel with these people as they are the experts. It was fascinating to experience this low volume in a good hall. I was sitting near the front and so had a clear impression of the sound although I wonder how well it traveled into the nether reaches of the upper balconies. Since his instrument is woefully deficient in its dynamic range, Mr. Levin attempted to vary his phrasing with generous portions of ornamentation, presenting this filigree as evidence of his Mozartean realism (this type of hybrid is perhaps only as historically accurate as Fritz Kreisler’s compositions “in the style of” Corelli or Tartini). Particularly inventive were his improvisatory passages employed to establish a transition between the keys of the differing works on the program. As he rightly explained in his comments, it was considered boorish to play a piece in one key right after a work in another without guiding the audience on a circumnavigation of the circle of fifths to the new proper spot. The upshot of all of this presented research was that one was forced to rethink one’s ideas about concert performance in general and musical history as a continuum of player to patron communication in particular. All of the efforts of these dedicated musicians were combined to attempt to reproduce the sonic atmosphere of the late 1700’s in Vienna and no “modern” device was so sacred as to prevent its being jettisoned to keep this diluvian lifeboat afloat.

As admirable as all of this was, there is no hyperbolic poetic license powerful enough to allow me to state that I enjoyed this concert. From the point of view of historical accuracy, this type of unemotional music making, dowsed of all of its fire, is not at all presented empirically or objectively since it is filtered through the prissiest form of sterilization. Any Austrian good humor is subsumed in a celebratory expurgation of Puritanism. For example, in an effort to distance his band from Elvira Madigan, Hogwood took the andante of the 21st at a ridiculously fast tempo and, as so often happens when performers are tasked with playing at an unusual (or unnatural) tempo, soloist and ensemble were not on the same page, Levin often almost a full beat ahead in his melodic intonation. Certainly this was not what the composer had in mind or how he executed this phrasing in his own performances. Too much tinkering leads to an artificiality that ultimately hoists this orchestra on its own petard. Even within the confines of their instrumentation, there were a few too many examples of bad intonation in winds and brass to be acceptable, although I suppose that if they are truly going for historical reenactment they need to display these pieces warts and all. In this distillation, the total lack of warmth or vibrato in the strings may be fitting, but the net result of an entire afternoon of this type of execution is positively deadly (I have always responded more to the aesthetic than the ascetic).

Somewhere deep down, I suspect that the period movement proponents realize how dull their music really is. In an effort to lighten the load, Mr. Levin announced before the interval that he would perform an improvisation upon themes written by the audience (he’s been hanging about with these stunt-loving Brits a tad too long). After the break, he attempted to sort out the entries. No Victor Borge, he fumbled fussily for an embarrassingly long time during the selection process, eventually taping four snippets of music paper onto his instrument. The resulting fantasia was indeed inventive (his fortepianism was impressive throughout) but, following on the heels of his lengthy preamble, much too extended for comfort. This entire experience was edifying and challenging, one of those theatrical events that live more fruitfully in the memory than during actual presentation. I am certainly glad that I attended this seminar and hope to do something similar again in twenty years or so.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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