SPCO and pianist Biss pair and compare Mozart and Kurtag

Jonathan Biss
Twin Cities Pioneer Press

By Rob Hubbard

Wolfgang Mozart and Gyorgy Kurtag. Two composers born 170 years apart. So what do they have in common? That's the question put to you by this weekend's St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concerts, which conclude a fortnight's worth of focus pianist Jonathan Biss and the SPCO have been placing upon the pair.

So what's the connection? Well, there isn't an immediately obvious one, if you're basing it solely on Thursday evening's concert at the Ordway. Their compositions seem more susceptible to contrasting than comparison, for Kurtag is spare and brief, while Mozart is melodious and meticulously layered. But it was still a performance worth catching, if only for Biss' beautiful take on two Mozart piano concertos and the complementary chemistry of the SPCO.

Orchestra concerts seldom open with a pianist playing solo works, but this was not your typical concert. Romanian composer Kurtag (age 85 and still writing) has assembled volumes of short pieces called "Jatekok" or "Games," many of them sounding like overheard snatches of musical conversation that emerge and quickly fade from earshot. Biss played six of them and introduced the playful mood that permeated Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17.

That's when Biss' graceful hands began to transfix the audience like a hypnotist dangling a watch. They moved fluidly above the keyboard, undulating like gentle waves on a lake as he demonstrated a touch of astounding delicacy. And the orchestra was in fine balance with him, despite the lack of a conductor's assistance.

So playfulness is something that Kurtag and Mozart have in common. But the second half of the concert showed that both also can create a haunting atmosphere. A collection of Kurtag "microludes" for string quartet (think interludes, but smaller) had a troubled tone, hums of unease giving way to aggressive blurts and the ghostly sound of bows bouncing off strings like harsh, clipped whispers.

But Mozart can be haunting, too, as Biss and the SPCO proved, making the Ninth Piano Concerto sound like an eloquent evocation of grief, especially in the weighty slow movement. Even when it seemed the rapid Rondeau would chase the clouds away, a melancholy wistfulness emerged again and again, making it an ear-opening take on a familiar work.