New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival continued Friday evening with three works, all marvelous and presented in reverse-chronological order. After Witold Lutosławski’s Muzyka żałobna, the orchestra and conductor Louis Langrée were joined by French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet for Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 3, and the concert concluded with Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 in E flat major.

Louis Langrée conducting the MMF Orchestra © 2012 Richard Termine
Louis Langrée conducting the MMF Orchestra
© 2012 Richard Termine

The first two works shared a common thread, as Muzyka żałobna (“Music of Mourning” or “Funeral Music”) was dedicated to the memory of Bartók. Written in 1958, thirteen years after Bartók’s passing, it employs techniques used by the late master, while at the same time inhabiting a shadowy landscape particular to Lutosławski (1913-94). It is scored for string orchestra, a fitting tribute to a man whose six string quartets revolutionized that genre.

I would never bemoan the programming of Bartók’s Third, one of my favorite concerti in the entire repertoire. However, given the dark atmosphere of Muzyka żałobna, this serene and highly accessible concerto seemed like a bit of a concession to listeners made squeamish by too much dissonance; perhaps one of his first two concerti might have fit better with Lutosławski’s homage. (A quick glance at Mr. Bavouzet’s website reveals scheduled performances of all three Bartóks in 2012, so it was clearly a programming choice rather than a necessity based on the soloist.) A little more “difficult listening” would likely have been welcomed by the apparently younger and enthusiastic audience.

These two works can be heard as their composers’ respective commentaries on human mortality. Whereas Lutosławski clearly found little rejoicing in the act of remembrance, Bartók took a more positive approach to his own end. Already gravely ill, his final piano concerto was intended for his wife, Ditta, to perform in the years to come. Its second movement, marked Andante religioso, is serious but not self-pitying or macabre by any means, and the rest of the piece is resolute and life-affirming. Mozart’s K543 is similarly robust, and gives no indication (Mozart had no idea himself) that in 1788 he only had another three years to live. To view it as a work from the twilight of his life would be misleading, and it was appropriately not presented at all in conjunction with the two 20th-century works on the first half.

The works were done justice, with playing that was about what one would expect from a festival orchestra charged with performing a different program every few days: decent although nothing extraordinary, with some moments better or worse than the mean. The MMF Orchestra seemed more engaged than on the two other occasions I’d heard them recently (see my reviews from August 1st and 7th), but in all three works it took them a while to hit their stride, and section leadership was virtually non-existent all evening.

The Lutosławski struck me as well played and imbued with a good sense of drama, notably as the tension mounted toward a central climax. (I should really term it the “nadir”, as “climax” poorly describes the desperation and tragedy portrayed at that moment in the score.) To complement the musicians’ enthusiasm for the work, this performance would have benefitted from a slightly more organized reading, as clarity usually makes the drama easier to comprehend in atonal works unfamiliar to listeners.

Mr. Bavouzet gave an enthralling reading of the Bartók, with a strong collaborator in Mr. Langrée. Mr. Bavouzet’s sound was as if amplified: absolutely huge – always above the orchestra in the difficult acoustic of Avery Fisher Hall – while rarely sounding as if it was the result of physical strain. He relished the dialogue between soloist and orchestra, perfectly mimicking the articulation and timbre of the clarinet in two-note slurs throughout the opening Allegretto. The otherwise lovely second movement was marred by a chorale of winds with questionable intonation and even worse dynamic restraint, but the third movement closed the work energetically and was the tightest in terms of ensemble. Perfectly in keeping with the joyous mood of the ending, Mr. Bavouzet shoved his bench under the piano and jumped up to embrace Mr. Langrée.

Mr. Langrée’s turn in the spotlight came in the Mozart symphony. His was an interpretation of big ideas and sharp contrasts, radiant and tender. The orchestra complied, with richly shaped phrases and cadences that were sensitive, flexible, and varied. The Andante con moto second movement suffered a bit from what performers would term “too many beats” – in other words, the orchestra (or Mr. Langrée; it’s difficult to place blame) leaned too heavily on the shorter note values, whereas emphasizing the pulse at half as frequent a rate would have given the impression of more fluidity. Regardless, it was a solid performance, which backed up the implicit claim that on any program, with no thematic justification required, there is always room for Mozart.