Mostly Mozart’s Genial Firebrand

by Sedgwick Clark

I ran into Mostly Mozart’s music director, Louis Langrée, prior to Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s concert that I reviewed last week, and told him how much I was looking forward to hearing the Lutosławski and Bartók works he was conducting a week later. His eyes widened and he smiled broadly, saying how much he loved their music. New Yorkers are used to this genial maestro’s elegant performances of baroque and classical repertoire, but now I suspect that Langrée’s restrictive MM connection has caused us to lose out on a more well-rounded musician than we realized.

The conductor’s demonic fervor in Lutosławski’s Bartók-flavored Musique funèbre (1958) was palpable. No less so was the surprisingly rich tone that he drew from the MM Festival Orchestra strings – no non-vibrato nonsense here! Equally stirring was Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945), with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in the solo seat. The Third was once thought inferior to the composer’s more aggressive First and Second; program annotator Paul Schiavo’s descriptive weasel words are “user-friendly,” placed in quotes so we won’t accuse him personally of condescension. True, Bartók was dying of leukemia and tailored the concerto for his wife to play when he was gone. But its standing in the composer’s oeuvre is no less distinguished than the first two: It’s just different.

György Kroó, in his insightful A Guide to Bartók, refers to the “free, airy atmosphere of morning” in the concerto and “the chattering chirping birds, meadows and fields seen in the bright spring sunlight” – a change from the characteristically Bartókian “night music” slow movements of many earlier works. Kroó draws an analogy “to the work of the greatest of geniuses, the graceful lightness of the work composed by Mozart on his death-bed.” Continuing his Mozart analogy, he compares the finales of both Mozart’s and Bartók’s final piano concertos: “Both works seem to dance and soar in a strange state of euphoria towards eternity. . . .” 

The Bartók certainly did under Bavouzet and Langrée, zipping along joyously with breathless delight – certainly more vivace than the last two performances I’ve heard in concert, by the mummified Radu Lupu and anemic András Schiff, and equaling my favorite recording, by Julius Katchen and István Kertész. Only the cackling woodwinds seemed underplayed. The composer did not live to orchestrate the last 17 bars of the Third, leaving the task to his student, Tibor Serly. Perhaps for this reason, Langrée felt free to add a bass drum to the final chord, à la Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Very effective.

Following intermission, the maestro turned in an impeccable Mozart 39th. Makes me look forward to the coming season.

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