Mostly Mozart Festival, July 26, 2019
– Neave Trio: Astor Piazzolla – Four Seasons of Buenos Aires
– Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Andrew Manze, conductor, with violinist Pekka Kuusisto and bassist Knut Erik Sundquist: Bartók, Romanian Folk Dances for string orchestra; Vivaldi, The Four Seasons
As a scorching New York City summer reminds us we’re in an age of global heating, it’s nice to be reminded that we do still have seasons. In this part of the world, theoretically at least, we’ve even got four of them.
Antonio Vivaldi wasn’t the only composer to find inspiration in the changing seasons. But his violin concertos collectively known as the Four Seasons remain among classical music’s most enduringly popular works.
Far less well known, but just as sublime in their own way, are Astor Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas, or Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. These short pieces evoke the times of year in a more abstract fashion, but with irresistible character and beauty.
Audiences at the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center last weekend had a chance to experience eight seasons, and more, in a most unusual concert program at David Geffen Hall.
First up was the Neave Piano Trio playing the Piazzolla in what was billed as a pre-concert recital. It would have been better to schedule this as part of the main concert program rather than as a sort of opening act. More people would have attended – the hall was packed for the main concert – and the quality of the performance merited a full house.
The Neave Trio gravitates toward modern and contemporary American music both in concert and in the studio. They skipped south of the border for their latest album to explore a batch of songs by Piazzolla, the great Argentinean composer best known for his creation of “tango nuevo.” With the Four Seasons, though, they have the benefit of an exquisite arrangement by José Bragato, longtime cellist in the composer’s own quintet.
As a result, violinist Anna Williams, cellist Mikhail Veselov, and pianist Eri Nakamura were at their finest at the Friday night concert. First they brought out all the drama in the jazzy romance of “Summer.” Here Veselov displayed an especially voice-like tone over the rumbling, soothing backdrop of the piano part. The three musicians seemed to breathe as one.
Cricket-like sounds from above the violin’s bridge introduced “Autumn.” Here a loping, syncopated dance feel alternates with slow sections marked by sweet harmonies, some taking the cello into a very high register to coalesce with the violin. Williams’ delicate touch helped maintain ideal balance.
“Winter” featured excellent work by Nakamura, who drew brilliantly expressive colors from the keyboard before the music erupted into a sparkling (snowy?) dance. Finally, the three showed off perfect precision in the excitable racing passages of “Spring.”
At the main concert, Finnish Violinist Pekka Kuusisto and Norwegian bassist Knut Erik Sundquist joined the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra‘s string players and conductor Andrew Manze for Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons violin concertos. But this was no standard performance. Kuusisto and Sundquist added folk tunes and improvisations between, and even during, the movements. There were surprises not only for the audience but for the orchestra, and for the evidently delighted Maestro.
Playing folk music interspersed within the Bartók, Kuusisto’s fluid dexterity at first outclassed the orchestra, which didn’t make a convincing case for all of these dances. That was not the musicians’ or conductor’s fault, in my opinion. I’ve always found these Bartók pieces generally more effective in their original piano versions. Some are just too simple for orchestral treatment.
The players’ high spirits became contagious, though. And together with the added folk songs from the guest artists, a party atmosphere developed in the packed hall. (Audience members were seated behind and to the side of the stage as well as in the regular rows. The Mostly Mozart Festival is a vastly popular New York City tradition.)
Some of the dances do take on more complexity, and there the orchestral arrangements work better. Manze was able to find some subtleties as well as energy in pieces with titles like “Stamping Dance” and “Romanian Polka,” and the crowd responded.
As soloist in the Vivaldi, Kuusisto’s rock-star showiness both belied and enhanced his musical wizardry. Now and then he played astoundingly fast, but only when the material allows for it, and Manze kept pace without a misstep. Kuusisto would stretch out a solo passage, turn to face and groove with the cellists, and generally show off in a good-natured way.
With Sundquist, he broke up the flow of Vivaldi’s dramatically distinctive movements with northern European folk tunes and improvisations. He even whistled a tune at one point. The folk music didn’t always jibe with Vivaldi’s sensibility, but more often it did well enough. Overall it created the welcome effect of a festive and impulsive event rather than a staid classical music concert.
I heard intonation problems from the string sections now and again. Maybe it was overexcitement. The soloist’s animation, however, never interfered with his musicianship. Interpolations aside, his solo turn during the Vivaldi was truly memorable, his tonalities colorful, his bravura technique creative. He sustained an emphasis on the imagery the composer explicitly had in mind, and on the sense of pure fun and vivid drama built into these ever-popular themes.
Halfway through, between “Summer” and “Autumn,” he and Sundquist played a medley of folk tunes – charming, active, like a country jamboree. When Vivaldi returned, the old Italian had to digest some scratchy Scandinavian improvisation, and did so without complaint. The second movement of “Autumn” arrived with one of the concert’s most thrilling moments: slow, tense, captured beautifully by the orchestra. And then the soloists went baroque on their own, breaking into some J.S. Bach.
Unusual, yes. Perfect for a hot summer’s night, absolutely.
The program was performed July 26 and 27, 2019. The Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center continues through August 10.