If all had gone as planned, Edward Gardner would have made his debut at the Mostly Mozart Festival back in 2006. Although he had to withdraw from that concert, New York did make his belated acquaintance last summer in an unstaged version of La Clemenza di Tito at the Rose Theater. On Friday, the celebrated music director of the English National Opera finally took his place on the podium at Avery Fisher Hall. Everyone seemed happy, and with good reason.

In a neatly balanced programme, three parts Mozart and one part Britten, Gardner demonstrated a keen technique, a probing intellect and a discerning sense of style. He obviously savours clarity and restraint, knows how to build momentum without stress, appreciates the difference between affect and affectation.

The Mostly Mozart Orchestra, which bands together only for a few weeks each year and confronts a limited rehearsal schedule, did its best to give the visiting maestro what he wanted. Spirits were high even when precision was not. Most Mozarteans would call that gemütlich.

Gardner opened the festivities with a broad yet bracing performance of the Zauberflöte overture, closed with a heroic yet delicately detailed account of the Symphony No 39, K 543. At showpiece time, he provided a sympathetic frame for Piotr Anderszewski in the Piano Concerto No 18, K 456. The Polish virtuoso breezed nonchalantly through the bravura challenge, rising with equal élan to demands for grandeur, playfulness and florid finesse. He reminded us that breathless Mozart need not be graceless Mozart.

Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings served primarily as a vehicle for Toby Spence, who sang the nocturnal poems with sweetness, purity and pathos worthy of the original interpreter, Peter Pears. Unfortunately, Lawrence DiBello and his somewhat recalcitrant horn could not efface memories of Dennis Brain or Barry Tuckwell.

Incidentally, Gardner and Spence must have been surprised to read in the sophisticated programme magazine that the high-flying tenor has undertaken Ferrando, the leading bass role in Trovatore, at the ENO. Perhaps the blurb-writer meant Ferrando in Così fan tutte. ★★★★☆

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