Guest conductor, pianist give dynamic performance

Inon Barnatan
Houston Chronicle

By Everett Evans

Tchaikovsky and Mozart are two names sure to lure crowds to concert halls.

Now here are two more, on the basis of their impressive work as guest artists in the Houston Symphony’s weekend performances at Jones Hall: Slovakian conductor Juraj Valcuha and Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan.

Making his Houston Symphony debut, Valcuha led the entire program with commanding dynamism — but especially in a resourceful and revelatory rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 that made one of the strongest cases I’ve heard for this work.

Barnatan, who debuted here with a well-received 2007 performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22, returned to grace Mozart’s No. 17 and again proved an ideal interpreter.

Tchaikovsky’s earliest large-scale work, his First inevitably is not as accomplished as his mature masterworks in the form. Yet it compensates with freshness and vitality, boasting his characteristic flow of appealing melody, and it intrigues with foreshadowing of his later symphonies — of the other yearning Adagios, sparkling Scherzos and exuberant Russian Festival finales to follow.

Valcuha’s triumph was to highlight the work’s virtues while downplaying its so-called structural imperfections (mostly in the development of the first and final movements). Perhaps most important was his knack for handling a crucial crescendo or accelerando subtly yet with optimal force.

The opening movement benefited from the rich texture of interplay between the strings and woodwinds in the restless main theme. The Adagio conveyed not just the customary prettiness but a sense of anticipation that lent drama. Its main theme acquired different values as it moved from its initial artful introduction in the woodwinds, on through the rest of the orchestra.

The Scherzo exuded vivacity and fleetness, its waltzing second theme artfully handled.

Valcuha derived maximum drama from the final movement, painstakingly built from its somber start to the triumphal outbursts of its main theme.

Though the Mozart could not be more different in character, it prompted another dream rendition. Barnatan elevated all three movements with his impeccable technique, inspired phrasing and gossamer touch, though his peak arguably came with the delicate Andante. He manifested a brightness of spirit, an alacrity perfectly in tune with the Mozart’s quicksilver genius.

The orchestra’s crisp, precise playing maintained an airiness very much in keeping with Barnatan’s work. One sensed a rapport between conductor, soloist and orchestra that kept this a seamlessly woven performance.

The program’s curtain raiser was Karol Szymanowski’s Concert Overture, a somewhat atypical early work honoring late Romanticism and Richard Strauss in particular. The sweep and vigor of Valcuha’s gestures were reflected in the orchestra’s playing, from the bounding heroic opening to the ensuing swooning lyricism.