Blessedly Bach

High note: Countertenor David Daniels, singing Handel with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at Mostly Mozart.Photo: Steve J. Sherman

Could Mozart’s popularity be slipping? By my calculation, only about a third of this summer’s Mostly Mozart Festival is devoted to Wolfgang Amadeus, perhaps even less if one is measuring by the stopwatch. I suppose that was only inevitable for an annual event now in its thirty-fourth year and built around one man’s music – especially after the relentless march through the complete Mozart beginning in 1991, the bicentennial of the beloved Amadeus’s death. Right now it is Bach who is getting the lion’s share of attention, in honor of his passing 250 years ago. The Bach celebrations will gather momentum during the coming two weeks, culminating in two choral programs by Philippe Herreweghe’s Collegium Vocale Gent in its U.S. debut. For fans of this estimable ensemble’s many recordings, the performance of the B-minor Mass on August 21 must look like the festival’s main attraction.

Keeping Mostly Mozart fresh and vital without upsetting a winning formula has been a continual challenge, one that Gerard Schwarz, the festival’s music director, and Jane S. Moss, Lincoln Center’s vice-president in charge of programming, have vigorously addressed over the years and with a fair amount of success. Guest appearances by famous period-instrument groups like the Collegium Vocale Gent have done much to enliven the fare; New York has been slow to foster such ensembles of its own, even though audiences materialize in quantity whenever one visits from Europe. This summer’s first arrival, from London, appeared during opening week: the grandly named Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under the leadership of Catherine Mackintosh.

The orchestra’s program appropriately focused on the British Baroque, an era of flourishing creativity just before the curtain fell and England was to become known as the land without music for more than a century. The genius of the age was Henry Purcell (1659-1695), who surely would have developed into a major opera composer had there been any native tradition for him to key into. Necessity forced him to remain a miniaturist in that area, and he provided incidental music for some 40 stage plays. The nine instrumental pieces written for The Virtuous Wife are typically Purcellian, pungent, zestful, and brimming with dramatic life. From the next generation, we had a savory taste of William Boyce (Symphony No. 8) and two Britishers by adoption: Handel (Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 8) and Pietro Castrucci, an Italian violinist-composer imported by Handel to play in his London opera orchestra (Concerto Grosso in D minor).

The performances were enchanting. There are so many period-instrument groups at work these days that it’s becoming possible to distinguish them by their individual styles. As a mostly player-led ensemble that functions without a permanent conductor, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment cultivates a winning flexibility and easy adaptability that embraces a huge repertory extending into the Classical era, through the Romantics, and up to Tchaikovsky; next year, with Roger Norrington on the podium, the orchestra even plans to tackle Mahler. It should be an interesting project, especially if the orchestra brings to it the sort of care for detail, exquisite instrumental blend, and rhythmic vitality that made this evening in Alice Tully Hall so invigorating.

Another ingredient that has kept Mostly Mozart alive and a commercial success over the years is its consistent pursuit of famous guest soloists with proven box-office appeal. No doubt the sold-out signs at the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment concert had something to do with the prospect of hearing five Handel arias sung by David Daniels, perhaps the first countertenor ever to cross over and receive full star treatment. His appeal begins with a compelling stage presence that even ears normally allergic to male sopranos pick up on. Putting that aside and simply listening to the sound itself, one hears a voice of remarkable purity and tonal beauty along with a command of style and color that any singer would kill for. On this occasion Daniels seemed reluctant to knock his fans sideways with his coloratura facility – there was only one real bravura showstopper – but in some ways his liquid legato phrasing and extraordinary breath control in a lyrically contemplative Handel aria is even more awesome.

Perhaps the most valuable feature of Mostly Mozart over the years has been the pride of place accorded to the composer’s piano concertos. The parade of pianists tending to these fabulous scores has always been a distinguished one, and at their head is Alicia de Larrocha, nowadays as famous for her Mozart playing as for her inimitable way with the Spanish repertory. Since De Larrocha had seemed somewhat out of sorts the last couple of times I caught her at Mostly Mozart, I was happy to hear her back in form for the youthful Concerto No. 9 (K. 271). The performance had all of her familiar virtues: superb digital poise and clarity, a bracing rhythmic lift, and an affectionate turn of phrase in every measure. Peter Serkin was no less admirable in Concerto No. 19 (K. 459), a finely chiseled interpretation that caught the music’s exuberant, upbeat spirit to perfection.

I don’t want to shortchange one last essential Mostly Mozart asset: Gerard Schwarz’s inventive programming ideas, which always give an audience something to chew on whether or not the subject relates directly to Mozart. In the opening week, for example, the conductor focused on the Second Viennese School’s romance with the Baroque by offering Anton Webern’s orchestration of the six-part ricercata from Bach’s Musical Offering and Arnold Schoenberg’s adaptation of Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 7, for string quartet and orchestra. Both of these appealing reworkings tell us a great deal about the two composers’ own creative priorities: Webern’s obsessive concern with vertical order, articulation, and instrumental color, and Schoenberg’s fascination with reinterpreting traditional German Classical form to suit his own theories of future shock. Beyond that, each listener-friendly piece is a dazzling tour de force of compositional and orchestrational ingenuity, music that even Schoenberg-haters might be able to love.

Blessedly Bach