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Hogwood's attempts at Mozartean authenticity fail utterly


Conducted by Christopher Hogwood.

Daniel Stepner and

John Gibbons, soloists.

All-Mozart program.

Symphony Hall, April 7 & 9.


CHRISTOPHER HOGWOOD brought his generally undistinguished Symphony Hall series of the 174th season of the Handel & Haydn Society to a close last weekend with mixed results.

He got the evening off to a bad start by irresponsibly countermanding the efforts musicians and managements alike have made to educate concert audiences on the etiquette of when to keep quiet. He invited audience applause after each movement, since this is what happened during Mozart's time. Hogwood omitted to add that it was also common practice in the eighteenth century to talk during the performance itself, and to hiss and boo if it was not to the audience's satisfaction.

Hogwood's misguided invitation to authenticity led to applause interrupting the flow of each work, acknowledged each time by Hogwood with a self-indulgent little bow. No matter that the soloists were disturbed. Hogwood's ego had to be satisfied.

As a further aid to Hogwood's professed "authenticity," Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony was split, three movements played as the concert opener, and the finale given at the concert's conclusion. Despite the thinnish sound -- not aided by Symphony Hall acoustics -- there was certainly elegance to the first movement, and eloquence to the second. The Andante took Hogwood's musicians to an intimate level, and their playing was sensitively nuanced and with an attractive legato.

The sound was vibrant, yet warm, too, suggesting a mixture of the emotions of longing and forgiveness. The movement, as done by H & H, might have been an aria for the Countess (The Marriage of Figaro). The Menuetto & Trio was successful, too; it came across with spirit and bounce. The Finale; Presto -- when we finally got to it -- however, was on the formal side.

Of the two soloists, fortepianist John Gibbons was by far the more successful. He played the unaccompanied Fantasia in D minor for Piano, K. 397 first. Although his smooth approach suggested romanticism, rather than Mozartean classicism (rather odd for an "authentic" performance), his performance was certainly beguiling.

The Piano Concerto No. 17 started off well too, with Gibbons establishing a gently expressive tone. The best orchestral playing of the evening came during the slow movement, with beautiful textures from the winds -- there was a lovely woody-sounding flute solo -- and a feeling of repose resulting from a close sense of ensemble. The balance of the movement as a whole was idyllic.

The concluding Allegretto came off less well: it was on the sluggish side, and prettified to boot. It needed more energy to succeed.

Hogwood's performance of the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5, with Daniel Stepner playing solo, showed the so-called "authentic" movement at its worst. Although Stepner is Boston's leading "original instrument" violinist, his interpretation of this concerto was eccentric and mechanical. His tone sounded scratchy, and balanced poorly with the mute-sounding H & H period strings. There was certainly no lack of invention to Stepner's playing; but it lacked spontaneity, and was suggestive of an elaborate but cold view of Vivaldi, rather than Mozart.

There was neither life nor warmth to the anemic sounds of either soloist or ensemble and, by the second movement, the acid-dipped tones had become very tedious and hard to endure.

Perhaps the key to Hogwood's failure in the violin concerto can be found in an article of his published in the current edition of Upbeat, a Handel & Haydn Society publication. In it Hogwood bemoans the modern tendencies towards "extremes of stimulation incompatible with the code of intention of the creator; we have asked, as it were, for the Rembrandt to be relegated to the gallery store-room and a twelve times enlargement with "color enhancement" to be hung in its place. A silly analogy, you may say but if a painting were to dissolve into a small pot of its component colors at the end of every day as the gallery doors closed, how scrupulously would you ask the staff to follow the artist's prescription when the painting was reapplied to the canvas the following morning?"

The implications of this strongly 20th -- not 18th -- century view is that art is created according to some "code," and that if this code is faithfully replayed, the original art can be accurately reproduced. A Rembrandt painting, therefore, is no more than the sum of its colors and instructions as to where each color is to be placed. And a Mozart concerto can be assembled, apparently, from no more than the written symbols on the score.

This is nonsense, of course, given the vast amount of "unwritten" information required to bring off any performance. Just as there is no reproduction Rembrandt which will be a "true" Rembrandt, there is no painting-by-numbers formula to "authentically" piece together a work of music as it was initially performed. When Hogwood chooses to "follow the code," his results are wooden and dehumanized.

When he allows himself freedom of interpretation -- as he luckily often does -- his music-making abounds in imagination and can be touching, too.

Recommended recordings: Nowhere does Christopher Hogwood's work possess such expressive freedom as in his felicitous and profound accounts of the Beethoven Piano Concertos (London 421-408-2). Hogwood conducts the Academy of Ancient Music, and Steven Lubin provides miraculous solo playing on four different fortepianos to mark different stages of development during Beethoven's life. It can be easily recommended as the best recording of the Beethoven concertos in the catalog.

Hogwood has also recorded an endlessly charming CD of Mozart wind music with the The Academy of Ancient Music (London 417-622-2). Lisa Beznosiuk is particularly ravishing in the Flute Concerto No. 1, Andante in C and Concerto for Flute and Harp (with Frances Kelly). Danny Bond provided an effervescent reading of the Bassoon Concerto.