Seattle Symphony Orchestra conductor laureate Gerard Schwarz returned to Benaroya Hall for a program of Mozart and Mahler, with pianist John Lill. The series continues at noon April 6 and 8 p.m. April 7.

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Seattle Symphony conductor laureate Gerard Schwarz returned to the Benaroya podium Thursday for a night of Mahler and Mozart, greeted with enthusiasm by the audience, and conducting with more nuance and insight than he has for some time.

The result was sprightly Mozart and a superb performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (the “Titan”).

From the first notes, the Mahler was enthralling. The bird calls and long, high violin note to start, the offstage trumpets and finally the theme in the cellos had an almost dewy freshness, and the performance rose from there.

In Schwarz’s hands, Mahler’s genius as orchestrator as well as inspired composer — he was under 30 when he wrote this big work — was displayed in full. Transparency, so that the many musical layers could each be heard, prevailed in the first three movements, as well as ever-changing light and shading. Schwarz elicited many quiet moments from the orchestra, allowing details through and characteristic Mahler accents to sing out — the emphatic, staccato oboe solo in the third movement for one. Poesy and color abounded.

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Splendid playing came from all the brass and winds, particularly the eight horns (who sat behind the double basses), highlighting Mahler’s unmistakable harmonic ideas. The gentler treatment of the first three movements gave shock and immediacy to the turbulent, cacophonous fourth with its wild clashes and crashes. The whole was beautifully phrased, nothing sagged and variety was constant in this excellent performance. Never has Schwarz’s direction sounded better.

He did well in the Mozart works, too. Perhaps his vision of the Overture to Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” was a tad on the expansive side, but he chose a lively tempo, the whole was crisp and clean, and again he asked the orchestra for many more quiet, contrasting moments than we’ve had from him for a long time.

British pianist John Lill returned here after a long hiatus for the Concerto No. 24 in C minor. He and Schwarz seemed in complete rapport with each other, orchestra and soloist exactly together and in balance, so that Lill’s fine playing could easily be heard.

Passion and drama are present in this concerto, but while both Lill and Schwarz never neglected them, it was the tenderness and lyricism inherent in Lill’s playing that stayed in the mind. He performed his own cadenzas, in classical style, appropriately bravura but never overdone.

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