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Pittsburgh Symphony's Mozart Festival starts with clang

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Friday, April 25, 2014, 11:43 p.m.

Fresh perspectives on the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are not only possible but desirable. Some come from the personalities of performers. Others come from advice on the performance style of musicologists.

Friday night's Pittsburgh Symphony concert, the first of a two-week Mozart Festival, had the extra dimension of a performing musicologist, Robert Levin, who offered an extremely individual approach to the D minor Piano Concerto, played an extensive improvisation and contributed a new edition of Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 1.

The concert in Heinz Hall began with “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” the familiar serenade for strings. Music director Manfred Honeck's unusually dynamic approach was mainly successful, although the last movement was too fast for the music to project well.

Before Levin played the concerto, he spoke of Mozart's skill as an improviser. Levin's overflowing ornamentation had a sympathetic partner in Honeck, who has encouraged other pianists to add ornamentation rather than play only the notes on the printed page.

Levin has superlative technique and fluency at the keyboard. His most extensive ornamentation was in the slow movement, which combined with pacing and dynamics to decrease contrasts between the sections. He also improvised his cadenzas, which was a tour de force.

However, the allure of the performance was dimmed by the soloist's often manic personality. Basic tempi were quick, and often there was an inner pressure at work to play faster. The pianist's tone was frequently clangorous.

After intermission, Levin's improvisation was based on two two-measure themes selected from dozens submitted by the audience. One was Mozartean in character. The other was Giuseppe Verdi's “La donna e mobile” from “Rigoletto.” He richly deserved the enthusiastic applause he received.

Levin's new edition of Mozart's First Horn Concerto goes back to the piece he planned for his friend Joseph Leutgeb before he realized the horn player had lost many teeth, high and low notes and stamina.

Levin also created modified orchestral parts. Principal horn William Caballero played the piece with beautifully defined personality and a winning mix of agility and lightness.

The concert concluded with an aggressive and propulsive account of Mozart's last symphony, No. 41 in C major, which after Mozart's death picked up the nickname “Jupiter.”

This concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday in Heinz Hall, Downtown.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media.

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