Why bother to mention that I'm just coming off a weeklong virus? Because it explains two things: why I opted for Saturday's, as opposed to Friday's, Utah Symphony concert, and why a member of the orchestra spotted me downing a fistful of aspirin just before going in.
"That's a bad sign!" he exclaimed good-naturedly. "It could be worse," I responded. "I could be doing this at intermission."As it happens I didn't need aspirin at intermission. And, except for one thing, I didn't need it at the concert's close. Because this proved to be the kind of evening that, at least temporarily, lifts one from his pain - even physical - and into the music, where if pain operates at all it's on a more cerebral basis.
For that credit the composers in question. But also guest conductor Jorge Mester, who, besides accompanying soloist John Browning in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453, presided over spirited accounts of Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3 and Dvorak's "New World" Symphony.
Browning may not be the first pianist one thinks of in connection with Mozart. For all its diamond-hard brilliance, his playing often lacks the kind of inwardness and delicacy that master's music requires. But here he sublimated those impulses in a beautifully judged reading, notable throughout for its clarity, elegance and even a fair amount of heart.
Thus in his hands the opening movement was both transparent and songful, with only a trace of brittleness. Yet that somehow hinted at the music's darker undertones, which in this piece lurk just below the surface, as did the muted depth of the Andante, a bit studied in places but again wonderfully articulated. After which the starling song of the finale was affectionately elaborated on without the pianist losing sight of its theme-and-variations structure - i.e., it always had a spine.
As did the reduced orchestral backup, although I wouldn't have minded a little more flexibility at times or a stronger sense of integration with the soloist, particularly important in this concerto.
On the other hand I have nothing but praise for Mester's direction of those other well-worn favorites, the "Leonore" No. 3 and the "New World." True, the first might have had more weight on the low end, but the controlled drama of the climaxes was hard to resist. (Ditto the smoothness and clarity of the offstage trumpet calls, earning trumpeter Nick Norton a well-deserved solo bow.) And although the Dvorak was compromised Saturday by a misfire toward the end of the Largo, it too was projected with energy and drama.
Within that framework woodwind solos were given their head, both in the tautly sprung opening movement and the solemnity of the Largo, with its evenly intoned English horn solo. Yet one also admired the disciplined softness of the strings and forceful brass playing, especially in the finale, here memorable for its strength and freedom from sentiment. Which is to say it thrust home mightily, bringing an automatic standing ovation, much prolonged, with loud applause and unceasing cries of "Bravo!"
And then I needed the aspirin.
- REPEAT PERFORMANCE: Murray Perahia's K. 453 (CBS) is perhaps the loveliest of all his Mozart piano-concerto recordings, followed by Anda , Ashkenazy (London) and, on period instruments, Bilson (Archiv). Similarly Kondrashin (London) remains my top pick in the "New World," along with Toscanini (RCA), Horenstein (Chesky), Levine (RCA) and Dohnanyi (London).