Though French pianist Frank Braley is the star attraction at this week’s Mainly Mozart series at Benaroya Hall, on Thursday night it was music director Ludovic Morlot’s realizations of Haydn and Mozart that stole the show.
With many members in the pit this week for Seattle Opera, the Seattle Symphony was a much-reduced orchestra for this concert (which repeats Saturday night), but the size is appropriate for these early classical works composed between 1777 and 1783.
The performance opened with Haydn’s Symphony No. 70, which comes in the middle of his symphony output. We are so used to the shape of a modern symphony, that it’s amazing to realize, listening to this one, that it was Haydn who developed the format, creating such a satisfying outline it has been followed ever since.
No. 70 begins “Vivace con brio.” In Morlot’s hands it was certainly fast, and had a lightness and clear articulation in the strings which gave it plenty of “brio,” even ebullience. Vibrato was only used as an ornament. There was serenity in the second movement, robustness in the third and the forward-looking fourth sounded exciting and urgent.
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Like photographer Ansel Adams, who admirers said could find more shades of black and white than anyone else, Morlot gave this Haydn symphony and Mozart’s Symphony No 36, (the “Linz”), which ended the program, an infinite variety of colors and shadings which in turn produced subtle changes of mood and expectation. Repeats were never just repetitions. He used dynamic contrasts from the softest pianissimo to a sturdy forte again in multiple gradations, notably in the last Haydn movement, and beautifully shaped phrasing and endings. The orchestra responded with sensitivity to his every indication.
“Linz” abounded with characterful life and firmness, with the oboe and bassoon solos in the second movement notable for their shaping, and the fast last movement played with exuberance.
In short, these were performances of grace and vitality together.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 (the “Jeunehomme”), written when he was 20, already shows the composer’s mastery. This again was a new genre, but also incorporated a relatively new and developing instrument, one of harpsichord weight; instead of having strings plucked by the keys, it had strings struck by hammers, making dynamics possible.
Braley approached the concerto with a light but bouncy touch, matching Morlot’s clear articulation and smooth legatos. It seems de rigueur today to play any early classical “presto” at warp speed, reminding one of nothing so much as a kid riding down a hill yelling “Look, Ma, no hands!” The “Jeunehomme’s” last movement is just that, with the piano part a constant ripple of notes. Braley played it with perfectly even alignment, but slightly slower might have made it possible to include more emotive shading. His slow movement, with its almost mournful start on the low strings, had a delicate touch.
Braley never bangs on the keys, but throughout the concerto, it was impossible for this listener to forget that the piano is a percussion instrument. Braley’s reputation is for pianism, both intelligent and poetic. The intelligence was there Thursday, but somehow the poesy seemed all in Morlot’s orchestral work, while the heart was missing in Braley’s performance.
The audience gave Braley, Morlot and the orchestra enthusiastic applause.