Started 51 years ago under the aegis of Lincoln Center, the Mostly Mozart Festival has gradually expanded its focus from just Mozart’s music to the related work of his contemporaries and his immediate predecessors and successors. This Saturday night program was a good illustration of the festival’s stated intent. Mozart’s work was exemplified by just 15 minutes of music, including the scheduled Masonic Funeral Music, K477 and the soloist’s encore, the Andante from the C Major Sonata, K545. On the other hand, Beethoven’s luminous G major piano concerto is, arguably, the most Mozartean of his five and Schubert’s lesser-performed Fifth Symphony is more indebted to Haydn and Mozart than to Beethoven.

Jeremy Denk © Michael Wilson
Jeremy Denk
© Michael Wilson

The evening’s pièce de résistance was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4, featuring as soloist Jeremy Denk, the very gifted American known for his unorthodox selections of repertoire, probing mind and, not least, essayistic talent. Playing a Beethoven concerto and not music by Guillaume de Machaut brings immediately to the listener’s mind reminiscences of past performances. Despite its beautiful moments, Saturday night’s rendition of this extraordinary music was not necessary one to become a treasured memory. Denk has an indomitable technical prowess and he commands a sound of unbelievable clarity. He is able to bring out unexpected details even in such a popular work. But, overall, there was too much Mozartean cheerfulness, poise and optimism in this interpretation, with too little sense of the demons Beethoven was fighting against in the years after the Heiligenstadt Testament. Also, in the Allegro moderato, there were a few moments when accelerating fingers seemed to have a life of their own, a “symptom” that Denk himself alluded to, in a touching essay about his piano teachers published in The New Yorker magazine several years ago. Maestro Gardner tried his best to accommodate Denk’s occasional rhythmical experiments, but the sense of a true collaboration between soloist and orchestra was somehow lacking; not even the “Orpheus taming the Furies” Andante con motto dialogue was entirely convincing.

In September 1816, when young Schubert composed his Symphony no. 5 in B flat major, he was under Mozart’s spell, as he willingly admitted in a diary entry dated several months earlier. It’s an almost Classical opus including several hints of the composer’s mature style. Written for a reduced size ensemble, without trumpets, timpani or Mozart’s beloved clarinets, the symphony requires an outstanding precision and clarity for a successful rendition. Edward Gardner, employing only eight first violins and four cellos, secured a genuine, chamber-like sound from his strings, an especially commendable accomplishment given the fact that these instrumentalists play together only for several weeks every year. Upon introducing various themes, the conductor carefully brought to life the characteristic Schubertian chromaticism. The Andante con motto was full of lyricism and in the Menuetto, the dance music truly defied the gravitational pull.

The evening’s surprise was the first piece on the program, Mozart’s brief, rarely programmed Masonic Funeral Music. Gardner took a microphone and charmingly provided introductory remarks, which the orchestra helped illustrate, about the central Gregorian chant intoned by oboes and clarinet and the special timbre brought to this work by the three basset horns. The rendition was particularly remarkable for the rigorously maintained balance between winds and strings.

Mozart composed enormously in his short life span and there are many lesser-known gems in his output. The Mostly Mozart Festival has a sufficiently well-established following and so very little competition in the sweltering New York summer heat that it can dare to program less the standards of the repertoire and more of those insufficiently appreciated late 18th- and early 19th-century opuses.