London-based ensemble makes a fine impression

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
The Oklahoman

By Rick Rogers

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, one of Europe's finest chamber groups, delighted local audience with an all-Mozart program at Armstrong College in Edmond.

EDMOND — With the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields performing an all-Mozart program in Armstrong College's new state-of-the-art concert hall, audiences could easily imagine that they had been transported back in time to hear music in one of Europe's most fashionable salons.

Founded in 1958 by Sir Neville Marriner, this London-based chamber orchestra has achieved a remarkable reputation for its unparalleled performances of repertoire spanning the baroque to the early 20th century. The ensemble's U.S. touring program spotlighted one of its many specialties: the early music of Mozart.

Each half featured a symphony and a piano concerto, all written between 1772 and 1782. Mozart was just 16 years old when he composed the "Symphony in D Major," a little-known work cast in three movements. Lasting only a few minutes, the work delighted with its simplicity.

Armstrong's new nine-foot Hamburg Steinway revealed its fine pedigree thanks to the efforts of pianist Inon Barnatan. The "Piano Concerto No. 9, K. 271" showed Barnatan to be a fine Mozartean, capable of virtuosity and poetry.

Conducting from the keyboard, Barnatan played with tremendous intelligence and sensitivity. A playfulness in Barnatan's playing of the opening "Allegro" gave the movement buoyancy.

In the melancholic "Andantino," Barnatan's tasteful playing beckoned the listener into Mozart's sound world. In passages without piano, the Israeli pianist sculpted the orchestra's sound in a way that offered tangible evidence of music possessing shape and structure. The finale, which was taken at quite a brisk tempo, was a marvel of Mozartean brilliance.

Following intermission, Barnatan and the Academy turned to the "Piano Concerto No. 12, K. 414." The two dozen members of the Academy orchestra easily navigated their way through passages filled with dotted rhythms, major/minor shifts and a dynamic range that included real pianissimos.

In the central "Andante," the Academy's resonant string sound took on an added depth thanks to the acoustical properties of the new hall. The outer movements showed pianist and orchestra capable of trading melodic passages with surprising ease.

Leader Kenneth Sillito brought this program to a close with Mozart's "Symphony No. 29 in A Major, K. 201." I've long thought that this is one of the composer's true undiscovered gems. Why it isn't played as often as his later, better-known symphonic efforts remains a mystery.

Mozart offers an even greater sense of grace and elegance in this charming symphony, no easy feat considering the composer was only 18 years old when he wrote it. The Academy musicians produced a lean, compact sound throughout, but one with ample sinew to preserve a sense of structure.

The oboes and horns provided added heft in louder passages, the latter occasionally overpowering the strings. But this was a minor miscalculation in what was otherwise a stellar performance. With its combination of delightful melodies and expert musical craftsmanship, how could this music not leave anyone with a smile?