The Schumann Piano Concerto is a hard piece to kill, but pianist Philippe Bianconi, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its music director, David Zinman, came close.
In this case of aggravated assault last night in Meyerhoff Hall, the chief culprit was the pianist. When it comes to giving a piece a good battering, Bianconi has all the tools: a bleak and percussive tone (at times when the Schumann sounded like a concerto for xylophone); limited dynamics (mezzo-forte and up); little rhythmic freedom (playing like water torture in its spirit-killing metronomic regularity); and ill-chosen tempos (eyeball-straining -- particularly in the slow movement -- in their lethargy).
It was hard to believe that this was the pianist whose recordings of pieces by Ravel sounded so impressive a few years back.
But two performances of Samuel Barber's music were wonderful. How fine an orchestra Zinman has developed here was apparent in the Overture to "The School for Scandal": The introductory fanfare was solid and sonorous, the chattering violins gossipy, the individual themes on clarinet and oboe plangent.
If the overture flew on wings of panache, the famous Adagio for Strings was refined, lyrical and mournful. Zinman and the orchestra have a fine feel for this piece, working out the implications of the opening material, reaching a climax of great nobility and letting the work fade back into darkness.
The concert ended with a Brahms Symphony No. 3 exhibiting zTC many of the virtues that Zinman brings to music: clarity of rhythm and articulation and naturalness of interpretation. It also managed to find in the third-movement scherzo just the right balance between the sad and the consolatory -- a difficult thing to do in this piece.
But this listener still wished for a little more in the way of interpretive detours in this straight-ahead performance. It was -- to make a motoring metaphor -- more like a ride in one of the better Toyotas than one in a Porsche. The former is more reliable, the latter more interesting.