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Originally published Friday, May 10, 2013 at 9:56 AM

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SSO spotlights Tchaikovsky and his favorite composer | Classical review

A review of the May 9, 2013, Seattle Symphony concert, the first in its four-concert Russian Spectacular series. Another concert is May 10; the series continues May 16-17.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Tchaikovsky worshiped Mozart, whom he claimed not merely to like but to “adore and idolize.” Nevertheless, though their music does share a sovereign clarity of texture, he didn’t often write like his idol.

One striking exception is the last of Tchaikovsky’s four orchestral suites, specifically titled “Mozartiana,” which comprises arrangements of four Mozart pieces, and thus made an ideal appetizer (or “amuse-oreille”) to start the first of the week’s two Mozart-Tchaikovsky programs.

It’s a very attractive piece, and the third movement in particular, extracted and varied by Tchaikovsky from Liszt’s piano paraphrase of Mozart’s sublime “Ave verum corpus,” is orchestrated with the airy grace of real genius. Former music director Gerard Schwarz used an orchestra of modest Mozartean proportions in this first half of the concert, which continued with Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488.

In the past, I’ve had mixed experiences with Vladimir Feltsman, the evening’s soloist, but this time his performance was an unmixed delight. From the very beginning, which saw him joining in the opening orchestral ritornello in approved “H.I.P.” (historically informed performance) fashion, he showed a wonderfully relaxed sense of Mozart style. His playing, while ravishingly delicate at times, was blessedly free from the kind of “walking on eggshells” affectation that too often emasculates Mozart performance, and he called forth the radiant lyricism of the first movement, the profound pathos of the second (enhanced by some discreet embellishment), and the impetuous dash and boisterous humor of the third with equal conviction.

The orchestra partnered him alertly, and then, increased to about double its pre-intermission size, delivered a spine-tingling account of the evening’s real Tchaikovsky. The Fourth Symphony begins with what is surely the greatest movement the Russian master ever wrote, and Schwarz led a performance that worthily realized its often elusive rhythmic subtlety, its intricately layered textural complexity, and the sheer epic scale of its formal design. The impact was heightened by incisive contributions from the horn and heavy brass sections, and by admirably pointed timpani playing by Michael Crusoe, who was as sensitive in pianissimo as he was crisp in more assertive passages.

Along with excellent work by the strings, the evening was notable for some superb playing from the woodwinds. The audience enjoyed the luxury of a guest appearance by the recently appointed associate principal clarinet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Burt Hara, one of the finest clarinetists in the country, whom I admired when I lived in Philadelphia and he served briefly as principal there. Ben Hausmann’s eloquent phrasing of the main theme in the second movement of the symphony, solos of characteristic artistry by Demarre McGill on flute and Seth Krimsky on bassoon, and some sparkling interjections from Zartouhi Dombourian-Eby’s piccolo all helped to make this a Tchaikovsky Fourth of exceptional beauty and expressive power.

The evening, then, was a splendid start for Gerard Schwarz’s “Russian Spectacular,” which continues tonight with more Tchaikovsky (and Mozart, again with Feltsman) and next week with Shostakovich, featuring Ignat Solzhenitsyn and Julian Schwarz as soloists.

Bernard Jacobson: bernardijacobson@comcast.net

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