Academy of St. Martin in the Fields at Strathmore: Mozart on the fast track

Friday, November 5, 2010

In its second area appearance this year, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields performed an all-Mozart concert on Wednesday night at the Music Center at Strathmore. The beloved group is on tour with American pianist Jonathan Biss, who will take up a teaching position at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, his alma mater, next fall.

With a light hand in two piano concertos, K. 271 and K. 414, Biss glossed over many details of Mozart's melodic decoration, creating a pale sound from the lidless Steinway that one might have mistaken for a pianoforte, only without the quirky tone of that older instrument. Biss has exceptional facility in his fingerwork, as well as superb control over the weight and volume of tone, but he tended to rush already fast tempos, which kept the astute Academy players guessing about where the next downbeat might fall. The delicacy of Biss's tone seemed as precious as his ultimately unnecessary attempts at conducting during pauses in the solo part: It was pretty, if slightly over-gesticulated, Mozart, but rarely more than that.

The hallmarks of the Academy sound -- which is typically brilliant, light, reserved, even polite -- were still there in chipper, clean performances of two early symphonies set at blazing-fast tempos, with the horns and oboes so well behaved as to be almost recessed into the background. The outer movement of K. 196 ticked along as busily as a well-oiled clock, with little rhythmic nuance right up to the final bar. All four movements of K. 201 were faster than one might expect for the tempo markings: The result was exciting, in a slightly white-knuckled way. That thirst for speed and precision was carried over into a breathless encore, the closing "Presto" of Symphony No. 15, K. 124.

-- Charles T. Downey

© 2010 The Washington Post Company