Few would say that Mozart's Piano Concerto in A, K.488, has one of the composer's great concerto first-movements. It's a pleasant, graceful piece, with modest opportunities for display by the soloist. And so it appeared when Christoph Eschenbach performed it with the Sinfonietta Cracovia, conducted by John Axelrod, at the Stars of the White Nights Festival. With the first statement of the slow movement's haunting theme, however, Eschenbach took hold of one's emotions and never let go. This glorious adagio, in the sicilianorhythm of some of the 18th century's most expressive opera arias, was played with rare insights and beautifully nuanced, every chord perfectly voiced. It's small wonder that the orchestra's winds couldn't match him in eloquence. An effervescent reading of the third movement released the accumulated tension perfectly, Eschenbach giving a lovely ping to each of the first three notes of the sprightly theme.
Eschenbach, who soon takes up duties as musical director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, has apparently been a mentor to Alexrod, a young conductor from Houston who has had successes with this orchestra from Krakow, Poland. Alexrod presided over an absorbing reading of Krzysztof Penderecki's Sinfonietta No.2 in Four Parts, in which motives are tossed from one section of the string orchestra to another, sometimes caught in midphrase, and then artfully combined in fugal textures. Axelrod showed convincing interpretive ideas in a vigorous account of Beethoven's Third Symphony (Eroica), but you couldn't help but feel that he would have been more in his element in front of a larger orchestra.
Whatever advantages can be obtained from playing Beethoven with relatively small forces were not clearly apparent. The Sinfonietta was among the first of around a dozen visiting orchestras at this year's festival. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, originally due later this month, will not be among them, however, having canceled last week for "logistical and financial reasons". But the appallingly small turnout for the Sinfonietta Cracovia at the St Petersburg Conservatory suggests that, unless the festival's publicity people get busy, even without the Met Orchestra there may be more concerts than audiences to hear them.