Alicia de Larrocha is the reigning queen of pianists. But there was not much that was regal about the performance of Beethoven's "Emperor Concerto" that she gave last night in Meyerhoff Hall with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its conductor-in-residence, Christopher Seaman.
De Larrocha's approach to this piece was leisurely and deliberate rather than heroic and imperial. There are many ways to scale a mountain, but the Spanish pianist's way -- on this occasion -- was not one of them. Her playing in the first movement did not possess the necessary marchlike inexorability, and she made the slow movement -- which she played rather like a Chopin nocturne -- sound a little too much like salon music. The final movement was the most disappointing in that it failed to capture the composer's dancing exhilaration.
With that said, there was much to enjoy about de Larrocha's playing. At nearly 70, she is still a great pianist, not one who used to be great. If there were a few moments of fumbling, there were also enormous craft, tremendous variety of touch and a perpetually singing tone. The "Emperor Concerto" is just not -- to this taste -- her piece.
Neither was it the piece for Seaman or the BSO last night.
But this all-too-deposable "Emperor" was followed by a superb performance of Elgar's Symphony No. 1. The composer marked the first movement "nobilmente e semplice," the full meaning of which is not conveyed completely by the translation "noble and simple." This movement -- particularly its extraordinary "big" tune -- shows a stiff upper lip over a heart full of quivering emotion. It's like a Leslie Howard movie, maybe even better.
The program will be repeated tonight at 8:15.