Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra – Mozart’s Mysterious ‘Great Mass’ and More

Schumann Concerto and Modified Mozart Received with Thunderous Ovations

By George B. Parous

The Great Mass” of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Große Messe in c-Moll, K. 427/417a, if you will, or, Great Mass in C minor, K. 427/417a, if you won’t) – its many beauties even more confounding for the music historians and lovers who have tried to unravel the puzzle of its incomplete state – was the drawing card that brought a good-sized audience – that should have been sold out – to Heinz Hall last night. It’s a colossal work of art, even for Mozart, on such a grand scale of thrilling beauty that even an unsuspecting listener might hear without an immediate sense that something was a bit “off” in spots. There’s no denying that, even with parts of the music drafted for the large orchestra left unfinished, a missing Agnus Dei, and a Credo that stops just as it gets off to a thrilling start, what it lacks is more than made up for in this massive missa solemnis – or what Mozart may have called a “cantata Mass.” Various composers have fine tuned the work in the centuries since Mozart’s death, with the version done by the Austrian composer/conductor Helmut Eder (1916-2005) being the one used in these concerts. Eder looked to the composer’s manuscripts to reconstruct and complete the above-mentioned Credo and other sections, following what he believed were Mozart’s original intentions.

Of course, for best results, it helps to have a first-class, world-renowned, GRAMMY®-winning orchestra of the highest possible caliber, an absolute maestro of a conductor, such as Manfred Honeck, at the stand, a guest quartet of excellent vocal soloists, and the gloriously mighty roar of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh playing and singing this music, and that’s exactly what we had last night covering nearly every inch of the huge stage. So, what we got, I believe, were truly the best results. But first we were treated to an excellent performance of Robert Schumann’s Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 54. A finer choice for the first half of the concert could scarcely have been imagined, for it stirred the audience into a fever pitch of enthusiasm that lasted for quite a while after the night’s music had come to an end. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s audiences are remarkable at every concert. No one in this city knows how to give an ovation quite like them.

Pianist Martin Helmchen | Photo credit PSO- Julie Goetz

The Schumann piece, originally named Fantasia, to a degree, shares with the Mozart work the fact that Schumann found no publisher and shelved the score, his first orchestrated one not to end up in the wastepaper basket. With encouragement from his wife Clara, after he suffered a period of illness, Schumann began composing at a rapid pace, possibly to make up for lost time, and it wasn’t long before his Piano Concerto in A Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 54, was published and premiered, with Clara Schumann as the piano soloist. The similarity ends in that we know how Schumann’s piece came to be completed, while Mozart’s, generally considered a “love letter” to his wife, was returned to the shelf for reasons not exactly known.

The visiting piano soloist for the Schumann concerto last night was Martin Helmchen. He’s a true virtuoso, with a mile-long resume encompassing numerous musical venues throughout this country, Canada, Europe, and Japan. At 19 he won the Clara Haskil International Piano Composition, and his career seems to have been in steady ascent ever since. The Schumann piece is an excellent showcase for his talents, and he made the new Steinway grand sing or thunder as the music necessitated. A fine-looking younger man, he throws himself into the score wholeheartedly, without the manic physical and facial contortions sometimes noticeable in pianists of such talent. As well as he played the Allegro affettuoso (I) and the Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso (II), it was the third and final movement, the Allegro vivace, that brought the audience to their feet. Time and again he had to return to the stage, bowing to a roaring ovation. It was his third or fourth trip back onto the stage when he accepted the inevitable demand for an encore. He very graciously seated himself again at the piano and played a short and sweet Chopin piece. The audience went wild all over again, but for the sake of the guest’s time and generosity, took the volume down to the standardized level existing between audiences and musicians that indicates it’s safe for the latter to tote their rose bouquets back to their dressing rooms.

In its playing through the course of the evening, the orchestra did what they’re known to do best. They played with the tight unity of precision that writer after writer has tried to rephrase to make for a more interesting read. It might be easier to ask the orchestra to “throw a game” just to shake things up for a change. But I would be the last to want to see that happen, and I’m not sure that this amazing group of instrumentalists could do it if they tried. Mr. Honeck waves his baton and makes conductor gestures; the orchestra plays beautifully. Strings, from violins to double basses – the brass, reeds, percussion – everyone knows what they need to do, and they have more than enough talent to do it in the most incredible unison. They were at the top of their game last evening with especially succulent music to sink their teeth into.

Mendelssohn Choir | Photo credit PSO- Julie Goetz

The same unity and precision came from the massive Mendelssohn Choir. This is an excellent body of singers, large and amazingly in time and tune always. The audience made sure to let them know they were a much-appreciated part of the program. And as is usually the case, exceptionally long and loud salvos were saved for the four guest vocalists in the Mozart work. Two sopranos bear the brunt of the singing, and two exceptional ones were on hand. They left indelible impressions on the crowd. Ying Fang sang with beautifully fresh and clear tones, the upper register ringing out like a silver bell, with some surprising glides into her lower register and almost mezzo tones that seemed solid, pleasant, full, and warm and well supported. Lauren Snouffer was the other soprano of the evening, and much the same may be said of her voice, except that it may be ever so slightly a shade deeper than Ms. Fang’s. Both women have extensive experience in opera and on the concert stage, and the audience was still cheering and recalling them at the end of the concert, when I had to make a hasty departure. Timothy Fallon, tenor, and Alexander Birch Elliott, baritone, sang the little that Mozart gave them to sing, and sang that little well.

Ying Fang, soprano with Manfred Honeck, conducting

Photo crfedit credit PSO-Julie Goetz

Fortunately, the two men – and Ying Fang – will be on hand for tonight’s single performance of Handёl’s The Messiah. So while you’re visiting Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to get tickets for the Schumann/Mozart concert described above, which will be repeated Sunday, Dec. 4 ONLY at 2:30 PM. Get your tickets for “The Messiah” while you’re there, because –


Pittsburgh Symphony tickets for both concerts available at https://www.pittsburghsymphony.org

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