This weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra offering was a crowd-pleasing yet varied cross-section of Mozart, with Baroque and Classical specialist Harry Bicket returning to the Severance Hall podium. The evening opened with a less-familiar curiosity from the last year of Mozart’s life, namely the Fantasia in F minor for Mechanical Clock Organ. Surely one of Mozart’s oddest commissions, it was written for a wax museum in Vienna that also displayed an array of mechanical instruments, including the eponymous, engineered in the wake of the Age of Enlightenment fascination with automata. While the instrument in question was dismantled around 1800, the Fantasia has persisted through various transcriptions – including for conventional organ as well as a very fine if somewhat extravagant two-piano version by Busoni. Bicket presented it in his own orchestral arrangement, a small ensemble of strings, flute, oboe, bassoon, and horn.

Harry Bicket © Dario Acosta
Harry Bicket
© Dario Acosta

Though titled Fantasia, the work was far more tautly structured than the free-roaming the designation implied, effectively in three movements. The opening Allegro was given with a severity encouraged by crisp dotted rhythms, and the orchestra negotiated the contrapuntal intricacies of the ensuing fugue with clarity and transparency. Solo passages from flute and oboe principals Joshua Smith and Frank Rosenwein respectively were standouts. A central movement served as a pastoral interlude before the return of the opening material.

Rounding off the first half, was a work from the composer’s teenage years: Exsultate, jubilate, featuring soprano Kiera Duffy in her Cleveland Orchestra debut. The orchestral exposition was sufficiently exultant; Duffy provided a dulcet tone in deft balance with her instrumental colleagues, handling the intricate melismas with smooth aplomb. Her diction was sharply focused in the recitative in concert with Joela Jones’ organ continuo, and the beauty of Duffy’s instrument was on full display in the Andante. Following a seamless transition, the Alleluja closed the motet in a showpiece of high spirits.

With its perennial place in pop culture, Eine kleine Nachtmusik is easily Mozart’s most instantly recognizable work; perhaps even more remarkable is that such a lighthearted piece was written while the composer was in the throes of the pathos-laden Don Giovanni. A stately outlining of the triad opened, contrasted by a theme of feather-light buoyancy. The string orchestra communicated with the intimacy of a string quartet. Matters were somewhat thornier in the development, though never straying far from its sunny beginnings, and the movement closed in a blaze of vigor. The Romanze was graceful in its effortless charm, a stormier central section in the minor did little to unnerve, and the Menuetto that followed was polished and punctuated. A whirlwind of a Rondo concluded – with elements of sonata form, the composer approached loftier heights than suggested by the titular diminutive.

Closing the program was the most substantial work by a wide margin in the Symphony no. 38 in D major, known by its moniker “Prague” as being written for the composer’s impending visit to the Bohemian capital. A declamatory gesture marked the slow introduction – a device omnipresent in the Haydn symphonies but comparatively rare in Mozart – with chordal passages hinting at the dark shadows of Don Giovanni. The movement proper boasted a jaunty main theme of pure insouciance aided by especially fine playing in the woodwinds, and Bicket’s keen guidance navigated the variegated development. Songful playing gave lyricism to the Andante with adroitly shaped phrases, especially in the chamber-like dialogue between strings and winds. A dance-like vivacity in the third movement finale obviated the need for a separate Minuet, coming to a close in rollicking rambunctiousness – but not without colorful excursions to distant keys.