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St. Martin orchestra presentation fresh, masterful

Inon Barnatan, Alisa Weilerstein, Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Worchester Telegram & Gazette

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Neither snow nor rain nor any other obstacles Mother Nature throws in their way stays the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields 2013 United States tour. Coming hard on the heels of New England's latest bout with severe winter weather, the London-based ensemble, with cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan in tow, presented a substantial programof music by Benjamin Britten, Haydn, and Bach on Friday evening at Mechanics Hall. For the good-sized crowd that braved the aftermath of Winter Storm Saturn to attend, it proved an event well-worth the effort.

Friday's performance began with a plush account of Britten's 1937 Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. As its title states, the work takes as its basis a melody by Britten's most important teacher, Frank Bridge. Its 11 variations (framed by an introduction and finale) treat the tune to a variety of set forms – there's a march, a waltz, and a bourée, among others – that are strongly appealing, in and of themselves; Bridge's theme is truly a means to an end, or several.

The Academy's performance of the Variations was brilliantly characterful, nicely capturing the strict humor of the March, the lilt of the Romance, and the frenzy of the "Moto perpetuo" (not to mention the delightful overstatement of the "Aria italiana," with its melodramatic first violin melody accompanied by second violins and violas strummed, a la chitarra). The most impressive moments, though, came at the end, in the vertiginous fugue taken at breakneck speed and the seemingly inevitable transition into the work's finale.

Ms. Weilerstein then took the stage for the program's second piece. Not yet 31, she is already the premiere cellist of her generation, as her recent recording of concerti by Elgar and Carter attests. In the event of this tour, she brought along something a bit lighter than the Carter Cello Concerto, namely Haydn's Concerto no. 1 in C.

Not that lighter necessarily means easier. Indeed, this is a piece that doesn't hold anything back in terms of virtuosic demands made on the soloist – not that any of them seemed to phase Ms. Weilerstein. On the contrary, she made one of the most challenging concertos in the repertoire look easy and sound effortless.

Ms. Weilerstein's tone, luxurious but not heavy, is ideal for this music, and she brought out its rich invention throughout her reading. Particularly noteworthy was the way in which her playing drew in the listener during its softer moments: there was a burning intensity to these sections – especially in her account of the first two movements – that fixed the ear in a very special way. The sunny finale, with its cascades of notes, proved nothing short of exhilarating.

After intermission, then, Mr. Barnatan had a tough act to follow when he joined the orchestra in J.S. Bach's Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor.

It's very difficult to make Bach sound fresh, yet Mr. Barnatan managed to do just that by approaching this piece as though it were new. There was a spontaneity to his playing that made it sound as though he were making up the music on the spot. This was most powerfully evident in his account of the second movement, with its twisting, chromatic, unison melody that heads off in some very unexpected directions; Mr. Barnatan and the orchestra explored all of them with a freshness and wonder that was captivating.

In the outer movements, too, the ensemble's playing was rhythmically taut yet purposeful. The music breathed, the phrasing was clear and natural, and, as a result, this became one of the most satisfying Bach performances in recent memory.

To close the evening, the Academy turned again to music by Haydn, the Symphony no. 45. Subtitled "Farewell" because the players are instructed to leave the stage over the last pages of the finale, this is a piece perhaps better known for its underlying concept than its musical content.

And that's a shame, because its content has a lot going for it. Haydn, of course, is bread and butter for the ASMF, and there was next to nothing to fault in this performance: it was vigorous, but filled with humor and nuance.The last movement, with its energetic double bass solo (admirably rendered by Christopher West) and musicians departing one by one, was both amusing and touching.

If you missed Friday's concert, you're in luck: Classical New England broadcast it live on Friday and will repeat the program on Sunday afternoon. You'll want to check it out, as this was a high point of Music Worcester's current season.