Updated Friday, January 11, 2013 at 12:01 PM
Jun Märkl is a conductor with a crisp beat and an expressive left hand. On Thursday evening, they helped him to secure a thoroughly enjoyable performance by the Seattle Symphony of Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” Suite. The orchestra responded with lively string playing and spicy woodwind textures, with some lovely oboe solos by Ben Hausmann.
Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, which followed, is not a piece you can make a major personal statement with — either you can play it or you can’t. The rising young Korean pianist HJ Lim certainly can, so far as scampering about the keyboard is concerned, though a certain waywardness of rhythm made it hard for the orchestra to stay with her in the fast movements.
Far the best part of the performance was a rapt reading of the central Andante, largely a dialogue between the piano and the lower strings, with divided cellos at times playing above the violas. Very beautifully they played, too, Efe Baltacigil leading the cello section eloquently, and here Lim also drew fresh and charming lyricism from her solo lines.
The encore she gave, her arrangement of a Korean folk song, was perhaps not the best possible choice, though it was certainly dazzling. For myself, I should have been happier, after Mendelssohn’s relentlessly clattery fast movements, to have been cosseted with something a little more reposeful.
After intermission came the evening’s greatest music, Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, in a performance that mixed the stylish with the decidedly not. The horns, with Jonathan Karschney this time taking the first chair, made a much stronger impression, and indeed I felt that both the horns and the trumpets in the symphony were at times allowed to dominate the ensemble too strongly. (Critics, you see, are never satisfied, but that’s not their job, which is rather to be always asking, like Oliver Twist, for more, please.)
Whereas the slow movement was romanticized, with all manner of soulful swells on the phrases of its main theme, the minuet, by contrast, was taken at a stylishly fast clip, one beat to the bar. Märkl slowed down substantially, now beating three, for the trio section; this was surely appreciated by guest clarinetist Sean Osborne, who phrased his melting solo gracefully, and would certainly have had a hard time getting through it at the main minuet tempo.
In view of that tempo, and given that this was far from being a long program, it was a pity the conductor chose to omit the repeats in the da capo of the minuet. He also disregarded the more crucial one of the second half of the finale, thus depriving us of one of Mozart’s most strikingly abrupt and dramatic transitions. I once heard Colin Davis bring to this finale a wonderful forward impulse, evoking the feeling that everything might at any moment fall apart, though it never did.
Märkl’s neatly executed reading of the finale was more conventional, but it was full of zest and infectious good humor.
Bernard Jacobson: firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Symphony Orchestra
With Jun Märkl conducting (Stravinsky and Mozart works only), 7 p.m. Friday, $17-$81; Märkl conducts full program with HJ Lim, piano, 8 p.m. Saturday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $19-$112 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org).