Pianist Gelber gains victory on Rachmaninov's Third

CLASSICAL MUSIC

November 19, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Bruno Leonardo Gelber walked out toward the piano on the stage of Meyerhoff Hall very slowly last night. The Argentine pianist's pronounced limp was the result of childhood polio. The remarkably fluent piano playing he produced in Rachmaninov's ThirdBruno Leonardo Gelber walked out toward the piano on the stage of Meyerhoff Hall very slowly last night. The Argentine pianist's pronounced limp was the result of childhood polio. The remarkably fluent piano playing he produced in Rachmaninov's Third Concerto -- in which he was accompanied by David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony -- was the result of childhood prodigy that was long ago nurtured into adult mastery.

Of the world's great pianists, Gelber ranks among the most mysterious. Why this musician, now about 50 years old, with his enormous sonority, his secure technique, his sound musical instincts and his easily ignitable temperament has never had a bigger American career is anybody's guess.

Last year, when Gelber toured the East Coast with a French orchestra in the Rachmaninov Third, every piano aficionado from Manhattan to Miami was talking about his interpretation and placing him among the handful of pianists who can make this most difficult of all concertos cry uncle.

That wasn't completely the case yesterday. Playing the Rachmaninov Third is nothing less than total warfare, and Gelber sustained some injuries: smudged passagework in an attempt to play the first movement cadenza -- he used the shorter of the composer's two alternatives -- faster than his fingers could move; a certain lack of clarity in the slow movement's central section; and some effortful chords in the concerto's blazing peroration.

But if the Third Concerto didn't yield to unconditional surrender, Gelber's victory was nonetheless impressive. He made the concerto's dangerous opening sound deceptively simple, there was genuine feeling in every phrase he played and he was always able to command what seemed unlimited reserves of power without resorting to banging.

Gelber has a predilection for fluctuating tempos that cannot make him an easy musician to follow, but Zinman and the orchestra gave him an accompaniment that -- if not as finished as some they have given in the past -- never became ragged.

The program included Morton Gould's little "Minute + Waltz Rag" (1990); David Dzubay's "Snake Alley" (1989), a colorful reworking -- beautifully performed by conductor and orchestra -- of the bizarre-scherzo terrain that is part of our inheritance from Berlioz; and Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, in a reading that was rhythmically accurate and also -- except in its final pages -- a little dull.

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