Mostly Mozart, the summer classical music festival organized by New York’s Lincoln Center, has been around for more than fifty years, but only relatively recently has “mostly” become an essential keyword. There wasn’t any Mozart-related music in the two midweek concerts conducted by Louis Langrée, the festival’s music director, unless one believes in Mozart’s genius casting a shadow on the entire 19th-century musical literature.

Louis Langrée and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
© Jennifer Taylor

The program did have a very interesting theme on its own, focusing on the essential role that the great pianist Clara Wieck-Schumann had in the artistic development of both her husband, Robert Schumann, and his younger protégé, Johannes Brahms, two of the most fascinating composers of the Romantic era. A very similar program, including Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Brahms’ First Symphony, performed several months ago by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, whose music director Langrée also is, was marketed as “Brahms + Schumann: For the love of Clara”. Here, in New York, the organizers gave up using the label and asked Kirill Gerstein to preface his appearance as soloist in the Schumann Concerto with a rendition of Brahms’ Variations on a theme by Robert Schumann.

The Variations were composed in 1854, during a period in which Robert Schumann was descending inexorably into madness, while young Brahms, consoling Schumann's wife, found himself falling in love with her. The theme is extracted from Schumann’s Bunte Blätter, Op.99, evoking the composer’s musical code for Clara (C-B-A-G#-A). Full of free melodic transformations, the variations are connected to other piano works by Schumann, not least to the Davidbündlertänze and to the idea of ascribing certain musical segments to a pair of fictitious characters, an ebullient Florestan and an introverted Eusebius. Kirill Gerstein handled the abrupt shifts in mood very well, the expressiveness of inner voices, the occasional contrapuntal writing. Technically, it was not an immaculate performance, but Gerstein’s playing conveyed the melancholy with which this music is imbued, the overall sadness sounding almost Slavic under his fingers.

Completed in 1845 and premiered by Clara, Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor combines virtuosity and introspection. Gerstein did well not over-emphasizing the former. Even if at points he didn’t seem fully engaged, his dialogues with a reduced-sized orchestra – and especially with the clarinet – were exquisite. As an encore, he offered, together with principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn, a heartfelt rendition of the Romanze from Clara Schumann’s own Piano Concerto in A minor.

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Brahms worked on the first sketches for what would become his Symphony no. 1 in C minor in the same pivotal year of 1854. Completed more than two decades later, the symphony is a work of great originality despite being anchored in tradition. The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s performance was quite tame, lacking the impact one feels even after listening many times to this masterpiece. There were several lovely segments: the solo oboe in the Andante sostenuto, the strings’ pizzicato in the Finale, the rendering of the famous Alphorn tune mentioned by Brahms in a card sent to Clara Schumann. The overall brass performance was rather weak though.

There is absolutely nothing wrong mixing orchestral and chamber music but, for the chosen topic, a chamber music evening would have offered perhaps a better and more rewarding alternative, especially since the interpretation of the symphonic pieces was not truly outstanding. More, Schumann’s genius manifested itself mostly in the many piano pieces inspired by his love for Clara, and Brahms was a phenomenal chamber music composer. Truth be told, the organizers did bookend the main event with Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, performed by soprano Susanna Phillips and Louis Langrée, and a Kirill Gerstein late night mini-recital featuring Clara Schumann’s own Variations on the same theme by Robert that Brahms explored and also the latter’s. In such a thematically unified program, the two sets of variations could have been placed next to each other. More of Clara’s compositions, so rarely performed, could have been brought forward. Or, one of her faux pas could have been illustrated: in 1853, the same year that Clara composed the aforementioned variations, Franz Liszt dedicated his Sonata in B minor to Robert; Clara never played it, considering this forward-looking opus “merely a blind noise”.