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Gunther Herbig leads BSO in intimate chamber performance

By Joe Banno,

It’s unusual to hear a seasoned, symphonic traditionalist such as conductor Gunther Herbig leading a Mozart performance on the intimate scale one would expect from certain early-music practitioners. But at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s concert at Strathmore Hall on Thursday, Mozart’s thrice-familiar Symphony No. 40 received an unfamiliar degree of chamber-like grace.

Employing an ensemble of players numbering about half of the BSO’s full strength, Herbig drew string-playing that was hushed and diaphanous (with vibrato present but sparing), gave the winds character-rich prominence in the balance, tapered attacks and phrase endings with great suppleness, and ensured that even the biggest climaxes retained a sense of classical scope.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 received similar treatment, with subtlety of phrasing and a notable expertise on Herbig’s part at teasing out and artfully blending inner voices. Piano soloist Jonathan Biss was clearly of the same mind when it came to dynamics and early-19th-century proportion. Biss’s reading was the antithesis of a barnstorming approach, with a scrupulous grading of touch and sound.

Even so, his virtuosity was arrestingly evident in his crisp articulation throughout the piece — indeed, every note in each of the runs up and down the keyboard was as clearly heard as it would have been on a fortepiano, with no loss of finesse or continuity of line.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 6 made for an uncommonly brief and lightweight second half. But, once again, Herbig’s lithe and supple conducting paid dividends, bringing out the grace and wit in this lovely, too-seldom-performed gem.

Banno is a freelance writer.

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