at Scottish Rite Cathedral

September 27


at Orchestra Hall

October 4

As much as I’d like to applaud the period-instrument, authentic-performance movement’s effort to simulate original concerts, the concerts I’ve heard demonstrate why most composers since Haydn have wanted bigger, better-tuned instruments. The short-necked, gut-stringed violins can sound whiny, older wind and brass instruments often wander off pitch, and the forte piano produces tinny, muffled sounds–no wonder Beethoven wore out a piano every year. Moreover, small orchestras were no longer the rule by the time composers started organizing concerts on their own; in letters to his parents, Mozart wrote about his symphonies being performed by pickup orchestras of more than 60 musicians.

The aim of the original-instrument movement may be dutiful replication, but I suspect that there are other motivations. An orchestra of only 20 to 30 instrumentalists costs less to hire and can easily fit into venues such as churches and community centers that charge minimal rent. (Of course this does make music available to a wider and cost-conscious public.) Snob appeal is another selling point: a claim of authenticity implies scholarship, which lures concertgoers, especially those who took Music 101 in college, into believing that they’re one up on their friends and neighbors. And once the movement has created a following, it’s time for another round of CDs: period-instrument Bach, Mozart, and–egad–Beethoven. Improbable careers have been launched this way. One of the movement’s leading advocates, Roger Norrington, was an obscure Oxford-trained musician going nowhere in the early 70s.

The period-instrument faithful may hate to admit it, but authenticity does not automatically translate into better, more valid performances. The merit of any performance has always lain in the interpretive skills of the performers, in their ability to connect emotionally with an audience. Ultimately, there’s no substitute for insightful musicianship.

I was recently reminded of the authenticity issue while listening, on consecutive weekends, to all-Mozart concerts by Basically Bach and by Murray Perahia and the New York-based Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Both groups attempted to present a scaled-down, more “authentic” Mozart, though only the Basically Bach musicians play on replicas of instruments from Mozart’s time.

Perahia was in town for the first of his three Mozart tributes this month arranged by Chamber Music Chicago. (He’ll return this Sunday in a solo recital and on Sunday, October 20, in a chamber potpourri with clarinetist Harold Wright, soprano Arleen Auger, and the Vermeer Quartet.) One of the most recorded and respected virtuosi of the fortysomething generation, the New York-born pianist gained prominence in 1972 after becoming the first American to win the Leeds competition. An intense, exciting, thought-provoking performer at first, he turned into a consummate professional–more often an enigma with a technician’s flare than a musician with an identifiable personality. Only flashes of insight have prevented him from suffering the fate of Radu Lupu, the ultimate bland, play-it-safe soloist. In this collaboration with the Orpheus ensemble, Perahia offered a specialty of his–three of Mozart’s piano concerti.

The middle or late Mozart piano concerto, as the program book quotes scholar Alfred Einstein, “is the apotheosis of the piano . . . and at the same time the apotheosis of the concertante element embedded in the symphony. [It] leaves the door open to the expression of the darkest and the highest, the most serious and the happiest, the deepest feelings.” Heard in one evening, these three concerti–no. 11 (K.413), no. 22 (K.482), and no. 25 (K.503)–show succinctly the remarkable progression in Mozart’s mastery of his favorite genre from 1782 to 1785. In no. 11 the give and take between orchestra and soloist is a joyfully innocent interplay; in no. 22 it’s a cheerful flirtation; and in no. 25, written around the time of the Prague Symphony and The Marriage of Figaro, it becomes a darker-hued dialogue full of dramatic surprises. In all three the ethereal mood and brooding anguish of the slow second movement is chased away by an exhilarating, jocular finale–as if the composer were assuring us that all’s well that ends well. In keeping with the convention of Mozart’s time, Perahia set the pace for the conductorless Orpheus from the keyboard, which should have pleased the authenticity-minded listeners–even though all the instruments were modern.

Perahia and the orchestra were at their most expansive and expressive in the C-major concerto (no. 25), fashioning an invigorating yet graceful and nicely balanced account. Their no. 11 was an amusing aperitif, a bit too cute and genteel. Their no. 22, the sole concerto on the program’s second half, was marred at the outset by ungainly miscues from the winds; but after they settled down, it was smooth sailing all the way to a buoyant denouement. Perahia was relaxed and absorbed–not at all the wound-up mechanical doll I saw in the mid-80s. And the cadenzas he used provided thematically appropriate flourishes. It’s been said that performing Mozart well and attentively is tantamount to achieving inner peace. If so, the beatific expression on the faces of Perahia and his colleagues spoke volumes.

For the Basically Bach concert–given in the small main chamber of the Scottish Rite Cathedral, one of the group’s regular venues–the 30-odd musicians played works by the “mature” Mozart on “original” instruments. The period-instrument approach has occasionally served the ensemble well in its revivals of Baroque operas and cantatas, but applied to Mozart–particularly the cosmopolitan Viennese Mozart and not the young Salzburg court pet–it seems wrongheaded. Conductor Daniel V. Robinson, a collegiate-looking fellow with imposing credentials from Harvard and Stanford, is bent on building a reputation as Chicago’s most visible period-instrument apostle. Along with Norrington, he firmly believes that most orchestral works before the mid-1800s could be enhanced by a more “authentic” chamber-ensemble treatment. What ambition.

Of all of Mozart’s 41 symphonies, the last one (nicknamed the Jupiter) is arguably the one most suited for performance by a large modern orchestra. Complex, intricately contrapuntal, it depends on louder, better-tuned intruments to articulate the contrasts and reconciliations that make it a marvel of precise formalism and intense drama. Not surprisingly, in the hands of Basically Bach it sounded at once murky and watered down. The strings were clumsy in their counterpoints, the winds dispirited. And Robinson seemed to have little regard for the piece’s overall architectonics. To make matters worse, a woman in the front row coughed incessantly during the first two movements. Toward the end, many in the audience, myself included, were fidgeting in their seats.

A similar reaction greeted the performance of the Horn Concerto no. 3 (K.447), which showcased a natural horn played by Lowell Greer. Yes, during Mozart’s time the natural horn, which lacks valves, was a popular instrument that added a touch of deep sonority to symphonic music. But players and composers alike were not enchanted with its tendency to stray off pitch; the notes it produces are shaped by the player’s lips and the movement of his hand in its bell. In long solo passages its pitches must have been difficult to sustain and control–as the hard-working Greer, a rotund man with a capacious chest, demonstrated. The orchestra accompanied him listlessly, almost as if they were half frightened. What should have been bouncy, cheerful music was a bumpy ride. The refinement of the horn to its present form took more than half a century; I’m sure generations of horn players have been thankful ever since.

The evening’s only high point, the concert aria “Ah, lo previdi!” (K.272), came way too early, wedged between the horn concerto and a perfunctory though fairly elegant rendition of the overture to Don Giovanni. Soprano Christine Brandes was convincing as the eloquently grief-stricken Andromeda, who’s desolate over the slaying of her lover, raging and lamenting in a quasi-Handelian manner. For once, the small volume of the orchestra seemed right, and its playing was warm: it whispered, sighed like a sympathetic chorus.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Christian Steiner.