Hough and Imani Winds a sheer delight in Mostly Mozart’s A Little Night Music

Stephen Hough, piano
Imani Winds
Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse
Lincoln Center
New York, NY
August 10, 2018

Debussy: Clair de lune from Suite bergamasque
Mozart: Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds, K452
Poulenc: Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet, FP 100

Encore:
Poulenc, arr. Hough: No. 1 from Trois mouvements perpétuels, FP 14

Right on the heels of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s concluding performance of the summer season, one had a late-night opportunity to see pianist Stephen Hough in a much more intimate setting: a remarkable chamber music performance with the Imani Winds at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, part of the festival’s A Little Night Music series. Hough opened the program sans winds in a luminous, shimmering account of Debussy’s Clair de lune. Debussy is a composer to whom Hough has recently turned ample attention, releasing a very fine all-Debussy album at the beginning of the year (although one would need to look to his French Album for a recording of the present work). The acoustics in the Penthouse were a bit dry, but the striking setting of flickering candlelight and the Manhattan skyline made it a small price to pay, an atmospheric complement to the rapturous beauty of Hough’s pianism.

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Stephen Hough, photo credit Sim Canetty-Clarke

The remainder of the brief program was devoted to sterling examples of chamber works for piano and winds by Mozart and Poulenc. Hough noted that these disparate composers had little in common musically save for their wry sense of humor. A stately introduction opened the former’s Quintet (K452), giving way to a jaunty primary theme which beautifully melded Hough’s elegant keyboard playing with the graceful winds – a harmonious blend of diverse timbres. The Larghetto was sweet and dulcet in its delicate trills and ornaments, and an almost sinfully sumptuous melody was passed through the winds. The finale was a jovial affair yet in no apparent hurry with a lyrical subject at its core.

Poulenc’s Sextet, dating from the early 1930s, added the flute to the forces onstage. The commanding opening brought to life a scene bustling with coloristic contrasts and manic syncopations evoking American ragtime. A searching monologue in the bassoon (Monica Ellis) and impressionistic writing from the piano offered some introspection, only for the movement to conclude in a dramatic flourish. An underlying melancholy – perhaps another parallel to Mozart – was palpable in the central divertissement with some especially fine playing from oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz. More frenzied contrast was manifest in due course, with a rambunctious and perky finale leading inexorably to a bright and brilliant end.

A lone encore continued the ensemble’s exploration of Poulenc, namely Hough’s own transcription for the sextet of the first of the Mouvements perpétuels (originally a work for solo piano). Hough was certainly apt in remarking it had “not a bit of angst”, and the seamless performance closed the evening in pure delight.

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Imani Winds, photo credit Matt Murphy
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Gardner and Denk deliver inspired performances at Mostly Mozart

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Edward Gardner, conductor
Jeremy Denk, piano
David Geffen Hall
Lincoln Center
New York, NY
July 29, 2017

Mozart: Masonic Funeral Music, K477
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
 Encore:
 Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major, K545 – 2. Andante
Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D485

A New York summer tradition for over half a century, the Mostly Mozart Festival is a paean to not only its eponymous composer, but as the name suggests, those who bore his influence.  Saturday night’s program embodied just that with music of Mozart prefacing works by Beethoven and Schubert that exuded a quintessentially Mozartean classicism.  At the podium was the probing English conductor Edward Gardner who opened the evening with a user-friendly introduction, explicating the connections between the selections on the program.

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Edward Gardner, photo credit Benjamin Ealovega
The only work from Mozart’s pen on the printed program was a certified rarity, namely the Masonic Funeral Music.  In his remarks, Gardner noted the enlarged wind section – inclusive of basset horns and the contrabassoon – and humorously commented that this orchestration was perhaps well-suited to Tony Bennett.  He then demonstrated the work’s striking interpolation of a Gregorian chant, aptly describing it as of an “astounding resonance.”  Gardner’s reading was deftly balanced, exuding a funereal pathos that anticipated the Masonic passages in The Magic Flute, and made a case for more frequent hearings of this finely-crafted gem.

The heart of the program was Beethoven’s genial Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, which brought forth the charismatic soloist Jeremy Denk.  Denk’s unaccompanied entrance was of a dreamy serenity, and bell-like clarity of tone.  His fingers spun a wondrously flowing melodic line, and not at the expense of plumbing the intensity of the work’s more dramatic moments.  Denk and Gardner were a somewhat unusual coupling; while the pianist was patently idiosyncratic, often looking out into the audience with closed eyes, and playing with a remarkable (perhaps too remarkable) flexibility, Gardner was much more straight-laced.  In spite of the incongruity of their approaches, their results were largely inspired, and Gardner’s sensitive accompaniment was adroitly balanced with the piano.

Denk began the first movement’s cadenza unassumingly, only to soon fill the depths of the Geffen Hall with resound.  Agitated strings opened the Andante con moto, in due course calmed by the beauty of Denk’s chordal passages.  The jocular concluding rondo was elegant yet down to earth, pearly and effervescent even through the minor key episodes.  Denk obliged the enthusiastic audience with an encore by – you guessed it – Mozart, the slow movement from the Piano Sonata in C major, K545, familiar to any young piano student.  Under Denk’s hands, this was a study in poise and refinement.

While Schubert looked ahead to Romanticism in his tempestuous Fourth Symphony, the Fifth was quite to the contrary: a glance backwards towards his classical antecedents.  The Festival Orchestra delivered the opening movement with a blended and homogeneous sound, opting for the repeat of the graceful exposition, and Gardner guided orchestra and audience alike through development’s exploration of distant keys with aplomb.  Gorgeous tones seemed to pour from Gardner’s baton in the slow movement, highlighted by an especially fine flute solo from Jasmine Choi, who that evening treated concertgoers to a pre-concert recital with pianist Roman Rabinovich.  A bit more fire was introduced in the minuet, though not without a certain joviality.  The finale was taken at a brisk pace, a beaming Haydnesque wit tempered by Mozartean drama, a fitting way to close Schubert’s lovely tribute to his predecessors.