The premise of a “Mostly Mozart” festival has always seemed a bit odd to me, rather like an Italian restaurant occasionally serving tacos or sushi. This particular program was more akin to the aforementioned restaurant serving medieval lentil soup as well as molecular gastronomy – the combination of Bach, Mozart, and Martin could not possibly be more diverse. It was a surprisingly coherent evening though, with all three works exploring different facets of spirituality and loss.

Swiss composer Frank Martin’s 1973 work Polyptyque: Six Images of the Passion of Christ is a violin concerto all but in name. Written for violin and double string orchestra, it is a six-movement concertante work structurally quite similar to the earlier concertos of Shostakovich or Britten. Depicting Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the last supper, Judas, the crucifixion, judgement day, and the glorification of Christ respectively, it serves as a concise and dramatic narrative.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja © Marco Borggreve
Patricia Kopatchinskaja
© Marco Borggreve

Intriguingly enough, conductor and festival director Louis Langrée chose to intersperse the movements with five chorales from Bach’s St. John Passion. It was a striking idea, and its success was mainly due to Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s intimately personal playing of the Martin. In response to her galvanizing intensity, the Bach chorales were transformed into a sort of Greek chorus, providing a highly intense musical and thematic dialogue. Kopatchinskaja is already celebrated for her fierce intensity and penetrating intelligence, but she also has the technique to match – she was pinpoint accurate in the wide leaps of the third and fifth movements, and more importantly, has a substantial range of colours used to full effect in this work. She was most effective in the fourth movement, a dramatic Shostakovich-esque cadenza depicting the crucifixion.

Martin’s orchestration as well was highly original, with two string orchestras on either side of the soloist. The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra played with remarkable virtuosity, and produced a range of colour and volume I didn’t think possible from an ensemble of that size. The Concert Chorale of New York sounded lovely in the short Bach excerpts, though it was rather difficult to make out the text.

After such a blazingly intense first half, it was no surprise that Mozart’s Requiem came as somewhat of a letdown. This was definitely not due to the soloists, who were beyond reproach – grounded by Morris Robinson’s formidable bass, Dimitri Pittas’ ringing tenor and Kelley O’Connor’s rich mezzo blended beautifully. The standout was soprano Susanna Phillips, whose exquisitely even voice navigated the treacherously exposed long lines of the Recordare with ease.

The orchestra, as in the first half, played with utmost concentration and virtuosity, with an outstanding trombone solo in the Tuba mirum. Though this energy worked well in a thrilling Dies irae, the rest tended sounded rather dense and messy. The same could be said for the chorus, which tended to sound more like Verdi than Mozart. Overall the whole thing felt cumbersome, despite Langrée’s swift tempi. That being said, it was undoubtedly thrilling to hear such modest forces produce such a rich sound, shown off to great effect in the Lacrimosa. The audience certainly responded to the energy and excitement onstage, but I missed much of the clarity and texture that makes Mozart’s final work so remarkable.

All in all, an exciting evening and a fitting finale to one of New York’s most prestigious festivals – but thank goodness it wasn’t Only Mozart.

***11