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Mozart festival gets off to a magical start Add to ...

Mozart@254

  • Toronto Symphony Orchestra
  • Peter Oundjian, conductor
  • At Roy Thomson Hall
  • in Toronto on Wednesday

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra's annual Mozart festival - this year, four concerts with four reprises by a week Sunday - opened auspiciously Wednesday with Mozart's earliest major symphony, the dramatic "little" G Minor, K.173 , composed when he was 17, and two concertos from widely separate compartments of his astonishing genius.

The Horn Concerto in E flat, K. 417 is a bucolic charmer, which Mozart engineered exquisitely to display and flatter the full resource of the French horn of his day. He also filled it affectionately with melody for his chosen soloist, Joseph Leutgeb, a close friend.

The TSO's principal horn, Neil Deland, inhabited the solo part Wednesday exactly in the spirit of its creation: simply, lyrically, with real pleasure in its velvety sound and assured finesse in its execution. The slender orchestra, under Peter Oundjian, helped remind us why this work is one of the classics of horn literature.

The Piano Concerto No. 21, in C, K.467 , is one of the magisterial final dozen Mozart composed for himself to play and conduct at the height of his career in Vienna. These issue from the highest compartment of his genius: complete in sophistication, unmatched to this day in originality, variety, subtlety, beauty and lucidity, and near miraculous in inventive vitality.

No. 21 is one of the loveliest and most enthralling of these. The American pianist Jonathan Biss, 29, was the soloist in it Wednesday, and he met the music's exacting requirements on every level. With extraordinary delicacy of touch and phrasing, he spun out the cogent discourse of the opening movement firmly and clearly, without melodramatic pummelling. The strength lay in the crystalline design.

The numinous, still pool of the magical middle movement, with its rich, quiet harmonic suspensions in the orchestra, was like a balm.

The finale was the perfect contrast in its quicksilver vivacity. Biss's hair-raisingly fleet and fine détaché finger-work cascaded and soared unerringly. Oundjian and the orchestra did their best work of the evening in this concerto.

The Symphony was crisp and effective, with the appetizing opportunities for its four horns and two oboes nicely taken. Conductor Oundjian threw himself into it - perhaps a bit too much of himself. But it's a remarkable work and a lively opener and it need not ever cower in the shadow of the "great" G minor, No. 40 .

The evening's bonus, inserted before the piano concerto, was the superb concert aria Ch'io mi scordi di te, K.505 , which Mozart adapted from Idomeneo for the farewell Vienna concert of Nancy Storace. Storace was one of his most cherished sopranos, the voice for which he conceived Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro . His adaptation of the aria included a freshly composed piano obbligato which he himself played in Storace's concert, demonstrating the level of his affection and regard.

Biss and soprano Shannon Mercer joined the orchestra for this famous piece. Mercer was stunning in a gorgeous coffee-black gown and she sang with a clear tone and a similarly clear determination to meet the aria's challenges. What was missing was the irresistible charm and pathos Mozart found in the singing of Storace, and this somehow disconnected it from Biss's blissful account of the piano obbligato.

Other Mozart@254 events include a Toronto appearance by the National Arts Centre Orchestra under Pinchas Zukerman tomorrow, Jan. 20-21 concerts featuring the TSO led by Jane Glover, and Jan. 23-24 performances by the TSO with pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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