Conductor Venzago, pianist Levin make outstanding debuts with the BSO


Two remarkable Baltimore Symphony debuts -- by conductor Mario Venzago and pianist Robert Levin -- helped to make the orchestra's concert in Meyerhoff Hall last night one of the finest this year.

The name of Levin, who performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major (K. 467), is hardly a household word -- unless one happens to be hip to 18th- and early 19th-century performance practice or to the latest Mozart scholarship. In those worlds, Levin's Mozart playing has something of the status that Rubinstein's Chopin and Horowitz's Liszt once enjoyed -- and for good reason.

Levin is best-known as a "fortepianist" -- a pianist who specializes in playing the considerably-less-than-grand reproductions of instruments such as those upon which Mozart and Beethoven once performed. Last night, in a huge modern hall and accompanied by an orchestra with modern instruments, Levin of course used a modern instrument: the BSO's splendid New York Steinway. What was demonstrated was that -- unlike many of his pianistic colleagues in the early music movement -- Levin has "chops." His trills are wonderfully expressive, his sound is beautifully colored at all dynamic levels and his fluent technique makes difficult passages sound easy.

Though refined in all the right places, Levin's performance of K. 467 was never dainty. He projected Mozart's argument on a big scale and with enormous dramatic bite. He took the finale at an enormous clip, playing with a rhapsodic freedom that suggested the music was being made up on the spot and reminded the listener that Mozart was to his time what Beethoven and Liszt were to theirs: the greatest of all piano virtuosos. Levin's cadenzas were the most brilliant and inventive this listener has heard since he was introduced to K. 467 more than 35 years ago by Dinu Lipatti's legendary recording.

The pianist was splendidly partnered by the orchestra -- the wind playing was a particular joy -- and by Venzago. From the concerto's imposing opening to its flying finale, the conductor's accompaniment was precise, stylish, insightful and imaginatively detailed.

The Swiss-born Venzago, a replacement for the indisposed Roger Norrington, made the best impression of any BSO guest conductor since Mariss Jansons' appearance several years back. Within the first moments of Haydn's Symphony No. 35, one heard a unanimity of ensemble, a warmth and refinement of sound, and an energetic playfulness that suggested a major conducting talent. Venzago's performance of Schumann's Symphony No. 4, which concluded the concert, was powerfully shaped, exhilaratingly paced and enormously affecting.

The concert will be repeated tonight at 8:15 and Saturday morning at 11.

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