Two hundred years separate the first two pieces played in the past weekend's St. Paul Chamber Orchestra program, and they inhabit different universes of musical expression.
Hungarian composer György Kurtág's "Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánsky" for string quartet has 16 short movements, lasts just 11 minutes, and is severely minimalist in its gestures. Friday morning at the Ordway, it was feelingly performed by a quartet of SPCO soloists led by principal violinist Kyu-Young Kim.
Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 was, well, different — politely well-spoken by comparison, and focused mainly on entertaining listeners with sweetly reassuring harmonies and an ear-twitching flow of elegant keyboard figurations.
Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes took a relatively robust approach to a piece where prettification is a clear and present danger. His chirpy tempo for the opening movement drew a sharply rhythmic response from the SPCO players, and the Andante second movement — a balmy interlude made famous by the movie "Elvira Madigan" — again moved purposefully, with creamy oboe soloing from Cassie Pilgrim.
The scampering witticisms of the finale highlighted Andsnes' sovereign control as a technician, each run a marvel of fluidity and silky tonal production.
The second half of the concert was, a little disappointingly, a virtual carbon copy of the first, with a short 20th-century piece followed by another Mozart concerto.
The modernist this time was György Ligeti, whose "Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet" showcased members of the SPCO's ever-impressive wind section.
Adapted from piano pieces, the Bagatelles are brilliantly spicy pieces for the combination of oboe, horn, bassoon, clarinet and flute, with the excellent flutist Alicia McQuerrey occasionally flipping to piccolo. There was plenty of humor in the music, too, particularly in the skirling opening movement and the gurgling Capriccioso finale.
And then, more Mozart — the Piano Concerto No. 22, with Andsnes again playing the solo part and conducting the orchestra from the keyboard.
Though chronologically close to Concerto No. 21 — it was written just months later — this is structurally a more interesting piece, and Andsnes again favored a fairly muscular approach, imparting a welcome spine and probity to Mozart's music.
Some of the players from the Ligeti surfaced in the concerto's middle movement, which harbors a glowing episode for winds only. Andsnes struck cunning balances between these instrumental breaks and his own solo passages, allowing the nascent romanticism of the movement's minor key hues to register fully.
Mozart's experiments continue in the concerto's finale, where there's another extended interpolation, this time at a slower tempo. Andsnes again folded the unexpected elements neatly into the overall design of the movement, slotting some particularly delicious trilling in for good measure.
He would be on many critics' shortlists of the Top 10 pianists in the world at present, and these opalescent, intellectually pleasing performances of Mozart concertos showed why.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.