ISO Classical Series Program No. 9
Hilbert Circle Theatre
Of his 41 numbered and catalogued symphonies, Mozart wrote only two in a minor key - both G minor. To launch the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Midwinter Mozart Festival, celebrating the 250th anniversary of the great composer's birth (Jan. 27, 1756), these two symphonies framed a three-work program conducted by Lawrence Renes. Often an ISO podium guest, Renes brought along his fellow Dutchman, pianist Ronald Brautigam, for the centerpiece: Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat, K. 595.
The "little" G Minor Symphony (as it's often called to contrast with the later one), No. 25, K. 183, is quite untypical for 17-year-old Mozart: It's longer; it has four movements instead of three; it uses four horns rather than two - the latter almost unheard of in a 1773-period symphony.
Unlike ISO music director Mario Venzago, Renes sets a tempo (at least for Mozart) and largely sticks to it, with the subtlest of pullbacks in the more lyric sections. This approach worked well in the little G Minor. From the stormy opening progressions in the first movement to the muted strings in the Andante to the stark, unmuted unison strings in the Menuetto to the Finale, recapping the opening movement's mood (with different themes), Renes got well-executed precision and excellent intonation with minimum vibrato from his strings. In the minuet's "trio" section (this symphony's best part), he got beautiful playing from the ISO's winds, including those four horns.
For the concerto, Renes and Brautigam turned the piano a full 90 degrees from its usual profile position such that Brautigam faced the audience with his lidless instrument in front of him. K. 595 is Mozart's final piano concerto, completed the year he died (1791). A wistful, smile-through-tears, world-weary work, the 27th also is utterly lovely in its intimacy. Borrowing familiar phrases from his 40th and 41st symphonies, the concerto shows a nostalgia almost unique for this composer.
At age 51 and sporting an ample silver mane, Brautigam and his Dutch conductor colleague played the three movements as true to its chamber-like construction as any group has. Taking all three at a brisk pace not only failed to diminish the work's mood-of-resignation but showed the lightly sparkling interior writing, the beautiful color contrasts between the strings, winds and piano. No one but Mozart ever achieved this kind of balance, and our performers were there to reveal it.
What a contrast between the concerto and the "great" G Minor Symphony, No. 40, K. 550, written three years earlier. With a turbulently dramatic set of outer movements, Mozart reached the Classical ideal of fusing form and content into a perfectly coherent whole. Its first movement goes far beyond the sturm und drang of his youthful G Minor symphony; in fact it's a precursor to the opening of Beethoven's Fifth. If Mozart had not written two others of at least equal intensity, the 40th would be the towering symphony of the 18th century.
For that reason, it is especially disconcerting that Renes chose unconvincing tempos for all but the first movement. The Andante and Menuetto were way too fast, as though Renes were trying to generate more energy than the music will bear. Then, for the trio section of the minuet, he cut the pace in half, which was apropos - if the minuet had matched or come close to it. For the Finale, he held the tempo back to its Allegro assai marking. But after the slam-bam minuet, it lacked its usually implied restless urgency. I've heard lots of Mozart 40ths in my time, and this one all-too-often stepped over any acceptable line. Still, Renes' players did follow his "offbeat" tempos as though they believed in them.