A Fair Outing for the Horn

United StatesUnited States Mozart and Bruckner: Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 11.4.2013 (BJ)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major, K. 271
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major

There could hardly have been a more opportune time than the second week of April for a Seattle performance of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. This is a work dominated to an unusual degree by a horn part that is both taxing for the player and rewarding for the audience.

It happens that the Seattle Symphony’s principal-horn chair has been unoccupied for the past two years, since John Cerminaro’s 2011 departure, keenly regretted by connoisseurs of fine horn-playing. Associate principal Mark Robbins has filled in capably, but it was high time the principal’s chair was filled. This happened at the end of March with the appointment of Jeffrey Fair, who joined the orchestra’s horns as assistant principal in 2003 and subsequently chose to step back in the section.

Thus the opportunity to prove his readiness for the top post came very soon with this program, and the proof the Bruckner offered was compelling. We may leave it for time and experience to answer the question whether Fair is destined to be a player quite on the level established by Cerminaro, of whom he has said that playing in a section with him has been “a great experience.” For now, I simply note that his playing of the first movement’s main theme at the beginning of the symphony had both finesse and a degree of assertiveness, opening the door for a reading, conducted by former music director Gerard Schwarz, that similarly combined sensitivity with a more outgoing manner than some performances bring to the work.

The dynamic range of the performance was huge, from some incredibly delicate pianissimos to richly textured fortissimos in Bruckner’s oft-essayed climaxes. Principal flute Demarre McGill’s dialogue with Fair and timpanist Michael Crusoe at the start of the first movement’s recapitulation was especially beautiful, and the trombone section provided sumptuous tone and superbly accurate intonation throughout the symphony. It was wonderful too, with Schwarz’s preferred seating of the two violin sections to left and right restored on this occasion, to hear their line coming majestically to the ear from the whole width of the stage.

The evening had begun with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9, K. 271. By gradual but far from slow degrees, Ohlsson has established himself among the greatest pianists in the world. His very first phrase, which under other hands can sound perfunctory, immediately beguiled with its sense of fanciful play. He sounded as if he had all the time in the world to shape his line: there was air around the notes, and an ease of phrasing, matched by the lucid textures Schwarz drew from the orchestra, that confirmed this as one of the finest Mozart concerto performances I have ever heard.

Bernard Jacobson

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.