Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, with Emanuel Ax. At the Arlington Theatre, Wednesday, October 25.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Schwyzer
From the sparkling, light fanfare that opens the Così fan Tutte overture to the triumphant, tumbling “Presto” of the Symphony No. 35 in D Major, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra played with such exquisite freshness that it was like hearing Mozart for the first time. Not for nothing is the Carnegie Hall’s resident orchestra known for its democratic working methods; the absence of a conductor and the rotating of lead players signifies far more than an organizational philosophy. Such shared artistic responsibility requires every musician be fully attuned to every other, and the result is a breathtakingly balanced, integrated sound.
That achievement is all the more stunning given the presence of an outsider in their midst; internationally acclaimed piano virtuoso Emanuel Ax joined the orchestra in two piano concertos from Mozart’s most prodigious period of composition, the mid 1780s.
The piano slips in, late and beautifully understated, to the Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major before winding its way between the strings, and Ax played with a slender fluidity and grace belying his stout physique. The concerto is a prime example of the composer’s tendency to flaunt his own technique on the piano — its tripping arpeggios and drawn-out trills are dazzling — yet Ax and Orpheus achieved an extraordinary balance. Ax made the piano’s theme sing like a brook bubbling alongside the orchestral layering; his playing was never overpowering, and never overpowered.
In contrast, the Piano Concerto No. 17 in C Major, written for Mozart’s student Barbara von Ployer, exhibits the simple innocence and warm roundedness of chamber music. Ax brought an aching, suspended quality to the wistful melody of the slow movement. If anything, the simplicity of this concerto accentuated the soloist’s sublimely lyrical musicality.
The program closed with the Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K.385, also known as the “Haffner Symphony,” where with dramatic physicality the first violinist led the orchestra through masterful modulations of volume and tempo, building from the refined “Andante” and “Minuet” to the exuberant, racing “Presto.” CAMA president Bitsy Bacon honored the Orpheus style in her opening remarks by giving the audience permission to applaud between movements, and Ax came to the front of the stage after intermission to cheerfully announce that the car alarm punctuating the second movement of the first concerto was not a third bassoon. It was precisely this kind of human warmth and honesty that infused the performance, leaving space for the real revelry necessary to transform highly accomplished playing into truly great music.