The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Gardiner and Mozart

Ah, another Mozart year is here. And it brings to New York, finally, John Eliot Gardiner and his terrific chorus. Sir Gardiner's work, particularly his recordings, have been among the most thrilling, illuminating, varied, and consistently excellent of any conductor since they started recording music. He took what could once be stalely called the "historically informed performance" movement, and made brilliant, exciting, gorgeous music out of it. His CD's have been a big part of my music-listening life since high school, when I first heard his recording of Figaro. But since I came to New York in 1998, this is the first time he has come to the City with his ensemble, as far as I know (he stepped in to conduct the Philharmonic in Beethoven's Ninth on New Year's Eve one year, but I was out of town). As soon as I could after Great Performers tickets went on sale, I snapped up two seats -- close to the front, of course. The concert was at Avery Fischer, after all.

The program consisted of the C Minor Mass and the Requiem. For soloists, Gardiner drew from his Monteverdi Choir, which was just fine. They were all excellent. I couldn't hear the men (Matthew Brooke and Jeremy Budd) very well in the C Minor, but I think that was just due to where they were situated versus where I was sitting (J.E. was in the way). The women were great, the second soprano (Miriam Allen) in the C Minor was especially good. Her light girlish coloratura voice danced effortlessly through the Laudamus te. And I do mean danced; maybe a bit more so here than in Gardiner's recording, the performance had a dance-like bounce to it, especially in the way the soloists phrased the ornate passages of the work. And of course the orchestra and chorus sounded terrific; we really need more bands and choruses in the U.S. that sound like this. That is, more than zero.

The only part where the performance came loose a little bit was in the first Osanna. Gardiner took it very fast, of course, and the singers -- some of them anyway -- sped up a little too much. Gardiner's interpretation has changed little since he made the recording -- the Cum Sancto Spiritu fugue was a bit more dynamic and the Benedictus was somewhat quicker. But I still feel that his approach in the grand, "high style" numbers -- the Gratias and the Qui Tollis -- is a bit too heavy. Even in big choruses like these, Mozart can't be all that somber. I actually slightly prefer Hogwood's recording for that very reason (that and the drums added to the Credo, which make that movement much more convincing... and fun). But these are quibbles, both the recording and today's performance were excellent.

No quibbles at all with the Requiem. It was one of those rare occasions when a performance had me so enthralled that I could not move and could barely breathe by the end of it. The Lux Aeterna almost brought me to tears. My heart was still racing for several minutes after the (standing) ovations ended. The occurrence of that heart-racing thing is one way I know it's been one of those truly unforgettable concert experiences. (Other such occasions have included hearing Robert Shaw conduct the Cleveland Orchestra in Beethoven's Ninth at Blossom; Murray Perahia play the Chopin Ballades at Carnegie; Renee Fleming forgive the Count in Figaro at the Met in '98 [that time, I actually did cry]; Krystian Zimmerman play the Brahms D Minor concerto at Carnegie; the London Symphony and Colin Davis do Verdi's Requiem just a few months ago... come to think of it, I've been pretty blessed). The Requiem brought new soloists to the front, still drawn from the choir (the bass Brooke was the only repeat). All four were great, and their voices blended wonderfully together in the ensemble sections. The performance was dramatic and flawless, and again the interpretation was very similar to his recording. Gardiner makes the best case possible for the Sussmayr version.

For the first time in my concert-attending career (ah, if only it were my career), I dropped by the not-green Green Room for the chance to shake Sir Gardiner's hand. And that I did, thanking him for all the joy he's given me over the years. Teri Towe was kind enough to introduce me to him. I tried to think of something to ask him, and the only thing I came up with was to ask why he had changed the layout of the chorus for certain sections of the C Minor Mass. He didn't even let me finish the sentence. "Look at the score," he calmly said (he's a very calm but firm guy, it seems). "Some of the choruses have 2 parts, others have 4..." He spoke quickly, I didn't quite get it all, but I shut my mouth. He also said he thought the Avery Fischer acoustics were not nearly as bad as people say. I can just say I feel a little bit less embarrassed, since at least we pleased this great man from across the pond. I'll keep sitting up front, though, thank you.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jonathan. I just discovered your blog. Nice work. I too am a fan of Gardiner. Last night I attended the Orchestre R&R performance at Tully Hall. They played Mozart's last three symphonies. I've heard the Jupiter many times, but last night it soared. A wonderful evening.

8:49 AM  

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