ONE THING MUST be made clear. The symphonies of Tchaikovsky produce extreme reactions. Most people either love them or, well, don't. I admit, and perhaps my heart is made of stone, that I fall into the latter group.
Judging from the audience's wildly enthusiastic reaction to the Baltimore Symphony's performance of the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony on Friday night, my opinion is in the minority.
But that performance, conducted by David Zinman, reminded me exactly why I dislike the piece so much in the first place. It takes more than a lot of heavy breathing to add up to genuine passion and that's exactly what Friday's performance was: a lot of musical huffing and puffing.
On the surface, there was nothing really wrong with the performance. Ecstasy abounded. All of the big climaxes were in place. All of the earnest solemnity sounded. The strings sobbed out the weeping melodies. The brasses blared forth the ominous interruptions of Fate. At the end, the human spirit emerged victorious, triumphant over the slings and arrows of cruel Fortune.
And that was the problem. It was all done strictly by the book. Not one moment sounded sincere or genuine. Sure, it was big and impressive when it needed to be or neurotically intimate when that was called for. But it all seemed terribly manufactured and flat. One contrived effect after another. Melody after melody, drowning in their own loveliness, stretched beyond their breaking point.
Zinman, a master at maintaining rhythmic discipline, usually manages to keep sentiment firmly in check. Would that he had grabbed the music by its shoulders and shook it soundly saying, "Get a hold of yourself!"
Perhaps he was tired. The orchestra had just played a concert in Frederick the night before, which could possibly account for some of the sloppy ensemble playing.
Ironically, Zinman's keen sense of rhythm worked to his disadvantage in his reading of Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite." If the Tchaikovsky was too undisciplined, the "Firebird" was too controlled. It was immaculately played. Textures were scrupulously clean. Each dramatic event, from the ballet's magical story, was clearly shaped.
It made for a very dramatic performance but one that never took the leap into the overtly theatrical. The "Firebird," with all of its sumptuous and ingenious orchestral writing, is nothing but sheer theatricality. A little more flexibility and delight in the music's sonic richness would have given it the sensuous jolt it needed.
By the Suite's irresistible end, with its jubilantly pounding brass chords, the performance resembled a rare glittering object, safely on display behind a sheet of glass. Certainly, it was a pleasure to look at, but it would have been more fun to hold it in hand and caress it.