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Mostly Mozart: Langrée Leads Festival Orchestra in Mozart's Final Symphonies

by Michael Cirigliano II

Mostly Mozart, Louis Langree, Avery Fisher Hall

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Music Director Louis Langrée and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra closed their much-heralded season in triumphant fashion Saturday night, presenting Mozart’s final three symphonies—a fitting (albeit familiar) end to a season that had already seen the ensemble traverse some new and interesting territory. (Interestingly enough, this was the same program Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic were presenting this weekend to open their new season nearly 4,000 miles away from Avery Fisher Hall.)

Composed in just six weeks during the summer of 1788, Mozart’s final testament to the symphonic form presents a varied collection of miniatures that revel in serenity, comedy, and fleeting hints of pathos. Given that Mozart penned another 75 works before his death in 1791, the final three symphonies maintain a sense of youthful buoyancy, far from the somber and autumnal feel of the Clarinet Concerto, Ave verum corpus, and Requiem. Although often performed as three separate entities, these symphonies, when presented together, form a virtuosic triptych—one that Alfred Einstein himself dubbed “an appeal to eternity.”  

A rarity in Mozart’s symphonic writing, Symphony No. 39 replaces the standard pair of oboes for the bourgeoning voice of the clarinet, providing a greater sense of homogenous sound when paired with the bassoons and horns. Clarinetists Jon Manasse and Steve Hartman were in fine form, displaying incredible nuance throughout—especially in the trio of the Menuetto, where Manasse was able to deliver several iterations of the simplest of eight-bar phrases without ever repeating the same shape or color. Unfortunately, the rest of the ensemble took some time to warm up to the occasion, which wasn’t helped by Langrée’s stodgy tempo in the symphony’s first movement; what should have been an elegant waltz statement became a bloated exercise in suspended animation. 

Both conductor and ensemble came with guns blazing when time for Symphony No. 40, however, presenting a delicate and restrained sense of drama to the otherwise stormy affair. The violins were incredibly precise in their many fleeting and nimble passages, while cellos and basses added an underlying menace to the meditative second movement. The Menuetto and finale had character to burn, and Langrée never failed to find the composer’s court-jester sense of humor within the minor-key outbursts; in fact, one of the evening’s finest moments arose in the final moments of the symphony, with the robust woodwinds and horns taking charge until the final breathtaking release.

Whereas the first two symphonies relied on elegance and drama, respectively, Symphony No. 41 finds Mozart at his most confident and jubilant—by this point, a complete master of counterpoint. The orchestra was incredibly playful in throwing around the short snippets of melody that make the whole of the symphony, showing a precision to both their balance and rhythmic drive that made the mad-dash five-voice fugue at the symphony’s end an example of uncompromising clarity.