Zinman and BSO reveal richness in Elgar symphony


May 28, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

An irresistible 11 p.m. deadline and an unusually long program made me exit Meyerhoff Hall last night at 10:22 p.m., thus missing the final movement of David Zinman's performance of Elgar's Symphony No. 2 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. What I was wonderful--easily the finest Elgar yet from this orchestra and conductor.

The Second Symphony is a problematic work. As Jan Bedell's fine program note remarked, it swings wildly between moods that include joyousness, end-of-the-world desperation and something approaching Straussian nostalgia. It's technically more challenging than the composer's Symphony No. 1, and its final movement -- the one I missed -- has a coda that is one of the great cruxes in the repertory: After nearly 60 minutes of often riotous music, the Elgar Second ends with a quiet heartbreak that suggests the sustained and mysterious end of the Brahms No. 3 and conclusion of Wagner's "Tristan."

It's not a work that gets played much in America -- Zinman is one of the few native-born conductors who programs it -- and our audiences don't seem to understand the end. Last night's audience applauded after the uproarious scherzo and Zinman turned back and said: "Everybody applauds at the end of the third movement, but nobody ever applauds when it's over."

I certainly hope the audience did. Zinman and the orchestra played the first movement with flair and brilliance, holding together its disparate moods. The conductor made the second movement inexorable in its tread and -- without succumbing to the temptation of slowing down as many current Elgarians are wont to do -- made it heartbreaking. The whirlwind scherzo came off unusually well, especially for an orchestra that was playing this difficult music for the first time. It made me want to come back for tonight's performance.

I won't be returning to hear violinist Pinchas Zukerman play either Schubert's gentle and delicate Rondo or Bartok's virtuosic and heroic Concerto No. 2. Zukerman is a great instrumentalist, but in the Mozartean Schubert work, his huge tone and thick vibrato were as appropriate as leading a cavalry charge in a tank. The Bartok concerto, in which Zukerman and Zinman did not finish simultaneously and which the violinist has played better on past occasions, was loud and somewhat lackluster.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8:15 and Saturday at 11 a.m.

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