At Benaroya Hall Friday night, three of the composers listed for the Seattle Symphony Baroque and Wine series were household names, but their concertos were not nearly as familiar in the guise presented, while most people would be saying “Leopold who?” for the fourth composer, Leopold Kozeluch.

Avi Avital © Guy Hecht
Avi Avital
© Guy Hecht

The gifted Israeli mandolin player Avi Avital has devoted much of his career in promoting works from the Baroque and early classical eras, either for mandolin or suitable for arrangement for mandolin. In this concert with a small group of Symphony musicians, he played and conducted two Vivaldi works, one originally for lute, the other always intended for mandolin, as well as his arrangement of one of Bach‘s harpsichord concertos.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for Lute in D major, RV 93, translates perfectly to mandolin, particularly when used with modern instruments which tend to drown the former. Many of those listening may have recognized portions of the concerto, Vivaldi being “an uninhibited self-borrower” according to the New Grove Dictionary. It was refreshing to hear it in this guise. Avital is a stellar performer, directing the 18 string musicians and harpsichord with his head, his phrasing expressive, his dynamics (unmiked) amazing for this instrument and audible all over the hall.

The other Vivaldi concerto, RV 425, intentionally composed for mandolin, also included recycling from others of his works, with string players often plucking, though with the cello continuo using a bow. The slow, second movement particularly sounded breathtaking. The string players, plucking throughout, accompanied Avital playing either pianissimo or double pianissimo with exquisite nuance, the orchestra staying just under him so the mandolin came through clear as a bell. The final movement left one wondering how anyone could play a mandolin so fast, so brilliantly and so accurately.

Avital’s arrangement of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto no. 4 in A major felt less successful, the result a little thick, the orchestra not always quite with Avital, who was reading the music for this.

Telemann was represented by his only trumpet concerto, in D major, conducted by the Symphony’s associate conductor, Pablo Rus Broseta. David Gordon, principal trumpet for the Seattle Symphony, used a modern piccolo trumpet rather than the very tricky valveless baroque one of the day, but even the modern version is a tricky instrument and for the first, slow movement, Gordon seemed to be playing carefully with a rather expressionless result. He warmed up, playing with verve and panache in the remaining two fast movements (the third movement used just the continuo players).

All the previous works were composed between 1720-1730, but Kozeluch’s Sinfonia concertante in E flat major was probably written in the mid-1790s and received its first and seemingly only performance in 1798. It then disappeared and was only rediscovered last century in Vienna’s Musikverein archives.

Kozeluch was a prolific Czech composer who landed in Vienna where he was highly regarded during his lifetime. One of his hallmarks was writing works for several solo instruments together, another was his development of an idiomatic piano style and his promotion of that instrument over the harpsichord. This concerto required solo trumpet, double bass, mandolin and piano, plus additions to the orchestra by way of horns, clarinet and bassoons.

Hearing it made one realize how many gifted musicians there were in Vienna then. The double bass was hardly considered a solo instrument, but Kozeluch’s writing for it is anything but easy, often at the extremes of the instrument. It required the Symphony’s excellent principal player Jordan Anderson to reach over his instrument to the full length of his arm to finger strings close to the bridge. Gordon used a larger trumpet, and Jessica Choe played the piano with smooth grace and shaping. But why would the piano be a nine-foot grand with the lid full up to play an early classical work with a mandolin and an orchestra totaling maybe 25 players?

Kozeluch showed considerable mastery in showcasing each of the solo instruments in such a way that each could be prominent in turn. His is a welcome and individual new voice from that era, though this concerto could profitably have been shortened from its 28 minutes, particularly the second movement which had not enough differentiation between the variations. Rus Broseta conducted this work also, and most of the orchestra musicians have become adept at playing 18th-century music with minimal or no vibrato and a more restrained and elegant approach.

The whole was a satisfying and unusual program. It would be good to hear more from Avital and of Kozeluch in the future.

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