Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond
Classical review

A May of Mozart and other treats from BSO, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

In addition to a whole mess of rain, May brought a good deal of memorable Mozart performances to the Baltimore area.

When Kit Armstrong made his Baltimore Symphony Orchestra debut in 2005, the California-born pianist was all of 13 and looked even younger. Last weekend, when he returned (the program book incorrectly dubbed this his BSO debut), Armstrong still seemed remarkably youthful, but played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat very much like a mature musician.

What impressed throughout Friday’s performance, with Mario Venzago on the podium ensuring a close rapport between soloist and ensemble, was the integrity Armstrong brought to the score. Even though he didn’t reveal a particularly wide range of tone coloring until the second movement, he sculpted phrases throughout with a keen appreciation for structure and character.

What the pianist didn’t maintain was musical tension. In the outer movements, the pace sagged at times, especially during cadenzas. But the overall depth in Armstrong’s phrasing still carried the day.

The program also showed off the many charms of Venzago. He hasn’t lost his beaming smile or boyish habit of sprinting onto the stage as if someone had just tagged him “it,” all to the obvious delight of the audience. The conductor hasn’t lost his knack for elegant music-making, either.

In Liszt’s “Les Preludes,” Venzago managed to play down the bombastic side of the piece while giving an extra nudge to the lyrical one, resulting in a beautifully proportioned performance that inspired refined and sumptuous playing from the BSO.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 likewise found the ensemble in smooth, supple form as Venzago drew out the music’s poetic warmth and subtlest details.

Back to Mozart. He figured prominently in a program from the stellar Freiburg Baroque Orchestra that closed the season for Shriver Hall Concert Series Sunday evening.

I’ve heard my share of period instrument orchestras, large and small, but none more technically pristine and musically sensitive than this one from southwestern Germany.

Even vibrato-free, the strings maintained remarkable warmth; they also demonstrated terrific clarity at any speed. The woodwinds produced prismatic tonal shades. The horn players likewise impressed with their security of intonation, nuance of phrase.

The choice of the Gordon Center for this concert (Shriver Hall remains under renovation) was perfect; acoustics there add a most welcome bloom.

Even that, however, wasn’t quite enough to give ideal presence to the fortepiano — the soft-spoken forerunner to the modern piano — used for two Mozart concertos. A small disappointment, though, considering that you couldn’t miss the refined musicality from South African-born keyboard artist Kristian Bezuidenhout, who is also the orchestra’s new artistic director.

Bezuidenhout tapped into the tenderness and wit of Concerto No. 9 in E-flat and Concerto No. 17 in G with equal sensitivity, all the while enjoying seamless partnership from the ensemble. The slow movements, in particular, generated an inner glow.

The concert also featured a strongly etched account of J.C. Bach’s G minor Symphony and a brilliant performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 74, full of subtle shades of dynamics and taut tempos.

By the way, I heard Mozart in April, too. The composer was the sole focus of a Peabody Chamber Orchestra program with pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher, who received the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America at Peabody Conservatory’s commencement on Wednesday.

Soon to turn 90, Fleisher remains an artist of formidable gifts. They were most evident in the middle movement of Piano Concerto No. 12, when he exquisitely conveyed in tone and phrase-molding the depth of what is, in essence, Mozart’s memorial to his friend and mentor, J.C. Bach.

Other than the glacial tempos he set for the second and third movements, Fleisher’s way with Symphony No. 40 was persuasive and, in the finale, quite riveting. The orchestra, prone to ragged articulation much of the night, hit a peak here, too.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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