BSO interprets Elgar work compellingly

November 22, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The "big tune" of the first movement in Elgar's Symphony No. 1 usually conjures an image of Leslie Howard, resplendent in a uniform and white gloves, making protestations of love to a bejeweled and tiaraed Merle Oberon. This achingly nostalgic melody, rising from the bottom of the strings and reaching an apotheosis in the full orchestra, overcomes you with gratitude that you are British -- until it dawns on you that you're not!

Long before he came on stage last night in Meyerhoff Hall to conduct the Elgar First with the Baltimore Symphony, conductor David Zinman must have realized that he's no Brit. His taut, compelling performance never surrendered to the temptation to linger in the first movement's self-indulgent sadnesses. There may have been a moment or two when one wished for a more overtly emotional approach -- is Elgar's "nobilmente" the equivalent of the Yiddish "schmaltzy"? -- but the interpretation paid rich dividends in terms of the symphony's structure.

It has always seemed to this listener, for instance, that the marked contrast between the first movement's luxuriant nostalgia and the second movement's scurrying march threatened the piece's organization. Last night, the conductor's approach, which emphasized the urgency of the first movement, made the work seem more coherent. And by lowering the thermostat in the first movement, Zinman was also able to make the slow third movement -- which was played with eloquence and refinement -- the symphony's emotional center of gravity. The orchestra -- except for some overblowing by the brass early in the first movement -- played well.

Violinist Joshua Bell, who joined the orchestra before intermission for Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3, is almost too good to believe. Unlike most of the other violinists of his generation, he never abuses his instrument and plays it in a manner that seems to suggest a vocal, rather than an instrumental, ideal. This is to say that Bell's Mozart playing resembled that of a much older generation of fiddler players who tried to make the violin simulate the human voice. While he did not ignore the work's architecture, Bell was more concerned with beauty of sound than with merely sounding correct. It was playing that produced deeply satisfying results in the most songful of all composers.

The program will be repeated tonight and the Elgar Symphony alone will be repeated tomorrow morning at 11.

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