There are people in this world whose favorite piece of music is the Mozart C-minor Mass. There are people whose favorite piece is Bach’s B-minor Mass. There are people whose favorite is the Missa solemnis (Beethoven).
Masses may not be for the masses. But they are for a strong, grateful minority. And the New York Philharmonic, under its music director, Jaap van Zweden, performed the Mozart C-minor Mass on Saturday night.
The concert opened with an oomp, which is to say an obligatory opening modern piece. On this occasion, it was Tread softly, by Nina C. Young, an American. I will discuss this piece and related matters in my next “New York Chronicle,” for the print magazine.
The concert proceeded with a concerto: Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major, in which the soloist was Carter Brey, who is the principal cello of the Philharmonic. He has held this position for almost twenty-five years. Before joining the orchestra, he had a prominent solo career.
Needless to say, he solos still.
To begin the concerto, Maestro Van Zweden picked just the right tempo: the tempo giusto. He has a knack for this. The phrasing was faultless too. And the orchestra’s sound was full while being nothing like heavy.
As it played, the orchestra was not observing “period practice,” and it could not be accused of Romanticism. This Haydn was simply musical.
Think of Neville Marriner. Van Zweden has something in common with him, when it comes to conducting music of the Classical period. Things are respectful, but not academic. And musicality rules all else.
By the way, the soloist sat with his legs crossed as the orchestra played the opening. He was relaxed as could be. Also by the way, he was dressed in those black pajamas that are typical concert-wear today. Alternatively, I refer to these clothes as a factory-worker uniform. They look comfortable, in any event.
When it was time for him to play, Mr. Brey tucked into the music hungrily. Almost unapologetically. As he continued, he played with considerable naturalness and flair. He had the right pomp and majesty, as did Van Zweden and the orchestra. Brey suffered some intonation slips, and some of his passagework was a bit muddy, but these problems were of little import. You could be confident in this soloist.
The first movement’s cadenza was interesting: beautiful and fitting, though not entirely Classical. There were hints of the modern in it. Where did it come from? I found out later that Mr. Brey has written his own cadenzas for this concerto.
To begin the second movement—Adagio—Van Zweden once more chose the right tempo. And his soloist was aristocratic, noble. Brey also sang beautifully, especially in his cadenza. From the orchestra, the last notes of the movement were together—which cannot be taken for granted.
Non-sloppiness in an orchestra makes a big difference to a listener (whether he realizes it or not).
The tempo in the Finale was—you guessed it—perfect. It was quick and scampering, but also sensible and manageable. Altogether, this finale was good, clean Classical fun. What a great piece, the Haydn C-major Cello Concerto, which lay dormant—unknown—for two hundred years.
For the Great Mass in C minor, the Philharmonic was joined by the Concert Chorale of New York, whose director is James Bagwell. The chorus proved an able partner of the orchestra.
Writing about James Levine, and his Mozart in particular, I used to speak of “just-rightness.” From his baton, everything would be “just right,” in tempo, phrasing, weight, rhythm, accentuation, dynamics, and overall feeling. I thought of this phrase—“just-rightness”—when listening to Jaap van Zweden conduct the opening “Kyrie” of the Mass.
Every year, the Salzburg Festival presents the C-minor Mass in St. Peter’s Abbey, where the work was first performed. I stopped going to these special performances. Too often, there would be some academic conductor, rushing through the music, according to his understanding of correctness. Imagine computerized Mozart.
Singing in the “Kyrie,” with Van Zweden & Co., was Miah Persson, the Swedish soprano. She deployed her lovely voice, although it has some rasps. (Some people might regard these rasps as enhancing.) She trilled decently. And she showed an effective lower register (necessary here).
Listening to Van Zweden in the “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” I thought of something I had written about him in a Bruckner symphony. The symphony was excellent, of course—solid as can be. But I found it a little short on spiritual uplift, frankly. A little cold, and, dare I say, a little secular.
The opening of Mozart’s “Laudamus te” was exciting—yes, downright exciting. And our other soprano soloist for the evening produced her usual clear, bright ribbon of sound. I am speaking of Susanna Phillips, from Alabama. (There is a song about Susannas and Alabama.) “Laudamus te” was smile-making, all through.
I do not propose to go through each section of the Mass, but I will comment on a handful more.
The “Gratias agimus tibi” was brisk and no-nonsense, but not rushed. The “Qui tollis” had a wonderful remorseless pulse. For “Quoniam tu solus,” a tenor joins the two sopranos. He was Nicholas Phan, giving us that lovely lyric voice of his.
There is a bass or bass-baritone in this work, but he has very little to do. I think of something that Michelle DeYoung told me about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. You can barely hear the mezzo-soprano in the Ninth—and Ms. DeYoung has one piece of advice for her fellow mezzos: “Wear a pretty dress.”
In any case, Saturday night’s bass-baritone soloist was Andrew Foster-Williams, who made a fine contribution.
I like the “Jesu Christe” chorus to be pealing and white—having the glorious white of C major, as in the “Jupiter” Symphony (and many another work). Did it on Saturday night? Not particularly, no. Plus, there was an air of routine about this chorus.
Later, it was time for Ms. Persson to sing “Et incarnatus est.” She did so in an admirable, unaffected way. She made the aria look relatively easy, but it is far from that. This aria is a lot more difficult than people may know. Persson had her hiccups and bumps, but I was impressed by her. Also, she had some nice assistance from Philharmonic woodwinds, including Robert Langevin, the flute, and Judith LeClair, the bassoon.
From Jaap van Zweden, the “Sanctus” had some “elegant syncopation,” to borrow a line from an American musical. And the “Sanctus” leads into the final section, the “Benedictus.” It was fine, just fine—the whole performance was. Better than that. But as the chorus sang the words “Osanna in excelsis!,” it occurred to me that they could have been happier about it.
Which, though an “intangible,” is a problem.