Works by Mozart and Brahms on a concert program are not exactly a novelty, but felt fresh and ear-catching under Louis Langrée’s romantic touch at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival in David Geffen Hall. Langrée led the festival orchestra, scaled down to 40 or so musicians, in Mozart’s overture to Don Giovanni and the Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor with German pianist Martin Helmchen. After intermission, the orchestra gained a few more instrumentalists to conclude the program with Brahms’ expansive Symphony No. 3 in F major.

Louis Langrée conducts the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
© Kevin Yatarola, courtesy of Lincoln Center

The overture is an odd work, the mirror opposite of the mood of an opera that morphs from lighthearted flirtations in its early scenes to a fiery fatal encounter with Satan in the finale. Mozart flips the order of things: the overture opens with chords of foreboding, then quickly shifts gears and sprints into an upbeat pace worthy of the composer’s successor, Rossini. The story goes that Mozart wrote the overture the morning of the day of the opera’s premiere, but as with many other works by the composer, he no doubt had worked it out in his head long before he lifted quill to paper.

Langrée’s bold approach carried over into the piano concerto. This was not a reading for lovers of original instruments or the replication of authentic 18th-century conventions. Both approaches – original voice vs modern adaptation – have their champions and both deserve a place on the concert stage. We miss much if we close our ears and hearts to one school of thought or the other. That being said, this was a rendition full of exciting dynamics, exploiting the technical capabilities of modern instruments with a 21st-century flair for showmanship and drama.

The balance between pianist and orchestra was just about flawless. Enhancing the sweeping passion of the work were two cadenzas by Clara Schumann. I was startled by their intensity, which Helmchen captured with fervor and respect for this significant composer’s unique voice, one we are only just beginning to hear.

Martin Helmchen and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
© Kevin Yatarola, courtesy of Lincoln Center

On the minus side, I felt the overall interpretation of the concerto, throughout all three movements, failed to capture the poignancy, the tender-heartedness of this sad, affecting composition. Performances that stand out in my memory have a delicacy, almost a frailty like the last shimmering flickers of light as the sun sinks into the horizon at dusk. It is more than any particular influence in the biographical details of Mozart’s life at this time. It is recognizing the current of vulnerability and mortality that runs silently under the pressures, demands, and increasing busy-ness of everyday life.

The program ended with a surprisingly monumental performance of Brahms’ Third Symphony. I say, “surprisingly,” because this work, too, is haunted by sadness. I see the F-A-F theme that runs through the entire work not as Langrée does, an ode to happiness, but rather as a yearning cry for hope, which may never be found. Still, Langrée’s brisk, impassioned interpretation gave me a new way to approach this work with its hymn-like second movement (such beautiful clarinet playing), the restrained elegiac melodies of the third movement, and the bold sonorities of a stirring conclusion.

The concert was preceded by a recital by a young Korean pianist to watch: Ko-Eun Yi. Yi has won numerous prizes and holds degrees from Juilliard and Stony Brook University. The delicacy and tenderness I found lacking in some of the main program existed in abundance in Yi’s insightful interpretations of works by Mozart, Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Brahms. Of course, an artist is encaged when performing with an orchestra, required to respond to cues within a fixed time frame and with less freedom to express his or her own voice.

Yi was unhindered by such restrictions. This was particularly apparent in her performance of Robert Schumann’s almost too familiar Träumerei. Yi took the notes of this song of dreams and spun it into a gossamer veil in which single notes hung expectantly in the air, then melted into silence, and we were reassured that pure beauty still exists upon this earth.