Brahms with muscle, heart and brain

June 04, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Sometimes it takes a young woman to evoke the way a young man feels. Such an occasion took place last night in Meyerhoff Hall. The young woman was the 24-year-old French pianist Helene Grimaud; the young man was Johannes Brahms, whose Concerto No. 1 in D Minor Grimaud performed with the Baltimore Symphony and its music director, David Zinman.

Brahms was about Grimaud's age when he finished and first performed this piece.

It's a concerto that could only have been written by someone very young: an agonized first movement -- the first theme sounds over the thunder of drums -- that must be understood in the context of the composer's grief over the nervous breakdown of Robert Schumann; a passionately soulful second movement that almost certainly refers to Brahms' always-to-be-unconsummated feelings about Schumann's wife, Clara; and a final movement that exhibits the thrust and exuberance that virtuoso showpieces always possess.

But we seem to live in an age in which this concerto is performed with an eye to its "profundity" -- even our younger pianists seem to forget what the muscles of youth are for and perform this music ever more ponderously and pretentiously. Grimaud would have none of that. Her approach emphasized the concerto's passion, anger and drama. Part of the reason the performance moved was that the pianist's remarkable fingers did. This was a virtuoso's reading that generated visceral excitement in its blazing speed, its rhythmic impetus, its fantastic articulation and sheer power. (Grimaud is slender, but she creates an avalanche of sound in the first movement's double octaves.)

A remarkable intelligence, in addition to remarkable fingers, was at work here. Grimaud penetrated into this piece's reflective inner world while also delivering its thunder and combative power. There was rapt concentration in the slow movement, for example, as well as lovely touches -- such as the emphasis of inner voices in the first movement's coda that most pianists either ignore or are unware of. Above all, there was a powerful sense of line and of enormous note-to-note tensile strength.

The accompaniment by Zinman and the orchestra was sonorous, considerate and ruggedly exciting.

The concert ended with Zinman's familiar interpretation of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. One can quarrel with details in the conductor's reading, but it is hard to resist the rhythmic pointing that enlivens the way he performs this work's andante or the breathless energy that he summons in its scherzo and finale.

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