A gentleman but not a soarer

November 06, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Sir Neville Marriner received an instantaneous standing ovation last night in Meyerhoff Hall at the end of his concert with the Baltimore Symphony. Marriner deserved such an ovation. for more than 1,000 recordings -- many of them superb -- that have helped familiarize listeners with the music of the 18th century.

But he did not deserve an ovation for his performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5. When it was over, one felt no differently about it than when it had begun. Nothing had happened; the boat that was supposed to take us into the heart of darkness never left dock; the triumphal blaze of the peroration signified nothing.

Marriner is an efficient conductor with a reliable beat, and he kept the orchestra together. But this listener never heard a sense of line that compelled his attention from one phrase to the next. The performance proceeded section by section, skirting along the surface. Tchaikovsky's last symphonies are confessional works that should embarrass us with their revelatory honesty and and vulgarity. Marriner gave us a polite, gentlemanly view of the composer; it was Tchaikovsky at high tea.

The British conductor was more successful with the works on the first half of the program, Berlioz's overture to "Beatrice et Benedict" and Mozart's Symphony No. 35 (the "Haffner"). Marriner knew exactly where he wanted the Berlioz to go, and it got there. He elicited polished playing from the orchestra that was always responsive to the twists in Berlioz's humor. If the Mozart symphony was a little dull, that was not the conductor's fault. Not everything by Mozart is a masterpiece, and the "Haffner" Symphony -- except for some genuinely soaring moments -- is one of his most overrated works. One suspects that it is closer to the composer's serenades than to his other late symphonies -- a work designed to be heard as a background to other activities. Even so redoubtable a Mozartean as Marriner was not able to persuade that the "Haffner" wouldn't have sounded better along with enlightened conversation and an occasional sip of slivovitz.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8:15 and Sunday at 3 p.m.

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