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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Concert Review: Remastering the Romantics

Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pablo Heras-Casado demonstrates his ninja podium technique.
Photo by Jean-François Leclerq © 2011
Thursday night's concert at Mostly Mozart built a bridge between the instruments of the 18th century and the early Romanticism of the 19th. Under the baton of Pablo Heras-Casado, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra offered a program of Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn--conventional composers given new life through the use of period instruments.

The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is celebrating its silver anniversary this year. Founded by music students in this university town near the Black Forest, this group's choice of archaic instruments seems somehow in keeping with the medieval, cobbled streets of their home city. Wooden flutes, natural horns, and a crisp, refreshing approach to music by Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn made for an entertaining addition to the usual Mostly Mozart schedule.

The program opened with Schubert's light-hearted Third Symphony. The characteristic orchestrations and long melodic lines that characterize this composer sounded fresh and new played by the Freiburgers, as if thick coatings of linseed oil were suddenly scraped from a masterwork of art. The music sprang with robust, Romantic life, from the slow, thoughtful introduction to the forceful Allegro with its complex clarinet part.

Mr. Heras-Casado conducted from memory, with an easy, relaxed approach. Indeed, this conductor's extraordinary, less-is-more approach on the podium, using hands, arms and shoulders expressively in place of a baton, seemed to lend fresh legs to the tarantella that closes this symphony in joyous fashion.

The orchestra was then joined by South African fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, playing a gorgeous replica of a Viennese instrument from 1830. The piece: Robert Schumann's little-performed s: the Introduction and Allegro for piano and orchestra.  Also known as the Konzertstück, this is a single movement that may have been the seed of a planned second piano concerto.  Mr. Bezuidenhout leapt smoothly into the current of the slow introduction, the long piano melody swimming smoothly along with accompaniment of the cellos and basses.

Under Mr. Heras-Casado, the last phrases of the Introduction sounded like the predecessor for the end of the prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. These slow, plucked chords of yearning opened the door for the main setion of the movement. The Allegro allowed the ensemble to shine along with the pianist as they took the introductory theme and ran with it, developing the melody into a full flow of symphonic inspiration.

Felix Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony concluded the evening. Again, the presence of authentic woodwinds, kettle-drums and horns brought a dark border to these sunny postcards of Italy. Mr. Heras-Casado continued his relaxed podium manner, drawing sounds with a swoop of his arm or a kinetic shift of his shoulders. The results were impressive, with rude, plentiful energy that made this sunny music come to vivid life.

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