The slow movement of Mozart's Concerto No. 18 in B flat (K.456) is an extraordinary affair: a set of variations in G minor that are colored with the most delicate of emotions, a kind of gentle melancholy that much resembles Barbarina's aria in "The Marriage of Figaro."
In his concert last night with the Baltimore Symphony and music director David Zinman in Meyerhoff Hall, pianist Christian Zacharias performed that movement about as beautifully as one can, with a subtlety of inflection and imaginative dynamic shading that brought to mind a superb soprano.
In all three of its movements, this was a great performance of a great piece. There are many things that make Zacharias a remarkably fine pianist, but intelligence stands out among them. He is a musician who -- to paraphrase Keats -- loads every vein with ore. Notes were strung together like jewels, and every phrase was telling.
And despite the delicacy of the approach and the wealth of details revealed, the playing was never precious and always projected a big line. At his best -- in the kind of playing he gave last night -- Zacharias is the sort of a pianist who makes one wonder why keyboardists ever bother with the fortepiano. With a subdued dynamic scale on the grand piano, he is still able to suggest an almost unlimited range of shadings to characterize Mozart's tenderness and brilliance.
Zacharias and Zinman are longtime collaborators -- they have recorded many of the Mozart concertos together for EMI -- and the orchestral playing, particularly that of the woodwinds, had the refinement and vitality of a fine chamber music performance.
The entire program was worthy of superlatives. There was a moving performance of Mozart's concert aria, "Ch'io mi scordi di te?" (K.505), by soprano Karen Clift in which Zacharias played the piano obbligato. This is perhaps the most difficult of the composer's concert arias. Clift, whose voice may not be mature enough for the part, sang with technical security, passion, radiance and flexibility of phrasing.
The concert opened and closed with two of the composer's greatest symphonies, the "Haffner" (K.385) and the "Prague" (K.504).
The former received an exhilarating account in which the articulation of detail was never sacrificed for excitement.
The "Prague" was similarly satisfying, with an especially impressive first movement in which the gravitas of the opening adagio gave way to an allegro with wonderful thrust and excitement. The slow movement had a songful lyricism, and the finale had lightness and geniality with a sense of bite.
Last night's concert was the halfway point in the BSO's all-Mozart "Summerfest." Is it too early to suggest that this year's "Summerfest" may be the orchestra's best ever?