Peabody Symphony plays Russian program with ardor, energy

May 06, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

It was with difficulty that this listener left Friedberg Hall last night after hearing only two movements of Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2 performed by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra and conductor Leon Fleisher.

Fleisher is not a natural conductor -- one would hesitate to hear what would happen if he chose to undertake Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" -- but he is a great musician. The Symphony No. 2 may not be a difficult piece to lead, but it is hard, particularly with a student orchestra, to make it sound coherent and noble -- and in that task, Fleisher succeeded brilliantly.

He shaped the melodies of the piece with romantic urgency, eliciting ardent and expressive playing from his string players in the first movement and securing a taut ensemble in the darting scherzo. The Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2 is a symphony we have heard a lot in this town because the Baltimore Symphony and its music director, David Zinman, took a few years preparing to record it. None of those Zinman-led BSO performances exhibited the conviction and the drive of last night's reading.

The reason for the the earlier departure was an after-intermission ceremony honoring Mstislav Rostropovich, the celebrated Russian cellist-conductor who steps down this year after 17 years as music director of the National Symphony. Peabody Conservatory director Robert Pierce presented Rostropovich with the George Peabody Medal for services to American music.

Suitably, in terms of Rostropovich's presence, the program was all-Russian.

Stephen Prutsman gave a brilliant account of the monstrously difficult solo part in Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2. This young pianist had the fluency to dispatch the famously long solo cadenza in the first movement and the massive sonority necessary to cut through the thick orchestral texture.

But it is what he brought to this piece in addition that made this among the best performances one has heard of this piece in years. There was an ability to color sound at all dynamic levels so that the ear was kept continually in expectation; and,even better, Prutsman has the knack to take notes and build them into what resemble narratives.

The third movement -- which Sviatoslav Richter once characterized as sounding like a dragon eating her young -- had a macabre playfulness, and the pianist was able to invest quieter moments with an equally remarkable lyric intensity.

Fleisher and the orchestra were not always able to give Prutsman the hand-in-glove accompaniment he deserved -- there were more than a few moments of ragged ensemble -- but they collaborated with appropriately ferocious energy.

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