Giving Grief a Light Touch

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

One of the highlights of last season’s Mostly Mozart Festival was a sensitive performance conducted by Louis Langrée of the “Pavane for a Dead Princess” of Maurice Ravel. Maestro has just the proper Gallic sensibilities to communicate this haunting, spectral dance in a stately and dignified manner. On Saturday evening, he led the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in two French works that again showcased his ability to develop surprising color from a smallish summer instrumental ensemble.

Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” is a set of four elegiac dances that recall a quartet of friends who perished during World War I. Maestro began at a rather dizzying pace, leaving the solo oboist breathless and a little behind in his opening passages. The work depends on the double reed section as well as the flute to carry its emotional message. In general, the individual members played accurately but did not establish the requisite atmosphere of plangency. What was this piece even doing on a Mostly Mozart program? Well, there is always some thematic connection and this year it has something to do with grief. However, Mr. Langrée did produce that light touch in the strings that gives his French music an air of delicious authenticity.

A bit of a rarity followed. Gabriel Fauré wrote some incidental music to the Maeterlinck play “Pelleas und Melisande” for a planned production in London. This music was arranged by Charles Koechlin and then reworked by its original composer into the suite that we heard this evening. Although French in spirit, the episodes are Wagnerian in dramatic effect and sylvan in character.

Again Mr. Langrée demonstrated his mastery of color and orchestral pacing. There was a palpable passion that was oddly missing from the Ravel. This was certainly the best realization of the night, even with the distraction of an audible murmur of recognition that made its way about the hall when the famous melody of the “Sicilienne” commenced. A familiar tune in an unfamiliar work; the audience simply could not help itself from intruding on the proceedings.

Old Wolfgang was also on the program of course, in the form of two works. Of the piano concerti between Nos. 17 and 21, the 18th is probably the least known and loved, and there is a specific reason for this shunning. The work is written to reflect a now-defunct style of writing that was meant to glorify the aristocracy of Austria — it was written for a blind pianist who was a member of the imperial family. To modern ears it seems overly pompous and staid; think Johann Strauss Jr. or Franz Lehár without any of the humor or sarcasm.

Italian pianist Benedetto Lupo did a fine job as soloist, weaving his way through the pages of politically correct declamation and preserving gravitas by re-creating Mozart’s original — now rather stuffy — cadenzas. This was a technically adept performance and the orchestra was expertly balanced in its accompaniment, but it was difficult to escape a certain soporific quality in this longest work of the evening. The G minor of the Andante was a fitting introduction to the symphony that closed the program.

The “little” G minor Symphony — No. 25 for those keeping score — is really Mozart’s first adult work, inspired by a trip to Vienna when he was 17. Sophisticated syncopations lead to the first of many anguished expositions that would establish Mozart as not only arguably the greatest of all composers but also the most relevant to modern times. The work owes much to Haydn but replaces his deist optimism with a gnawing questioning that is the essence of why we in the 21st century are still having festivals titled Mostly Mozart.

* * *

That Ravel Pavane from last season was on the program as Mr. Lupo crossed the plaza and presented a solo recital as the late-night offering on Saturday at the Kaplan Penthouse. Unencumbered by the need to integrate Mozart into his program, he chose instead a selection of French music with an Iberian flair and Spanish music with a New York connection.

Mr. Lupo is a former bronze medalist at the Van Cliburn Competition and now appears regularly as a judge for similar events such as the Bachauer and Cleveland International tournaments. He is a professor at the Nino Rota Conservatory and probably best known for his recordings of that interesting composer’s work — for those who don’t recognize the name, Rota was roughly Federico Fellini’s Bernard Herrmann.

He began with “Estampes” by Claude Debussy, with its middle image of Granada. His playing was quintessentially impressionistic. Not only was his touch light and quick in its escapes, but his choice of little pauses emphasized that this was not a representation of a place but rather thoughts leading to such a representation. Not quite Walter Gieseking perhaps, but one could envision a piano without hammers, its strings plucked instead by sprites, cherubim in training.

The aforementioned Pavane was a noble reading. A bit brisk for my taste, but always clear as to the demarcations of the bar lines, a steady, measured beat unwavering throughout. Mr. Lupo has certainly heard the original Ravel recording and refreshingly avoided any smoothing of lyrical line that only makes the piece treacly. His formality of rhythm elevated this dance to regal status and his sensitive colorings added a tinge of the thanatological. The princess may be dead, but lives on in the memory (difficult not to think of Diana Spencer).

An odd lapse of accuracy haunted the other Ravel entry, the “Alborado del gracioso” — “The Morning Song of the Jester” — from “Miroirs.” Much of the passagework here is rapid and requires just the type of steely touch that Mr. Lupo was able to muster. It was not in these finger-breaking sections where he ran off the rails but rather in other expository moments. The more he labored the worse he became embroiled in mistaken entrances and dissonant landings.

Finally, movements from “Goyescas” by Enrique Granados. Mr. Lupo took the time to explain to his audience that this piano suite, itself inspired by paintings by Goya, was the jumping-off point for an opera that had its world premiere at the Metropolitan in 1916. Granados paid the ultimate price for a ticket, however, as his ship on the journey home was sunk by the Germans — that pesky war again.

Mr. Lupo began with “Los requiebros” but quickly got lost again, resorting to several rather bizarre runs of arpeggiated material whose echoes hung about the room like flatulence. The passages that were free from these underpinnings were rousingly played and after a few moments the ear adjusted to listen only for the gold and forget about the dross.

“The Maiden and the Nightingale,” by contrast, was superb. Probably the most beautiful music of Granados, it came through lovingly in Mr. Lupo’s hands. Of particular note was how he daringly presented much of the material at a very low volume, the bird itself skipping about the keys all the more nimbly as a result.

One final note: Just one half hour after conducting a full-length concert, Maestro Langrée came to Mr. Lupo’s recital and stood unobtrusively at the back of the seated public. This type of dedication and interest is rare in today’s jet-setting leadership pool, and deserves a special mention of high praise.

The New York Sun

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