BSO finds the luscious and the bold in Rachmaninov's 2nd Symphony

October 08, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

In David Zinman's Russian repertory, few works loom as large as Rachmaninov's Second Symphony. This huge piece appeared frequently in the BSO music director's programming in his tenure in Rochester in the '70s and '80s, it's one of the pieces that often accompanies him when he guest conducts and he has programmed it regularly in his years with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with whom he has made a fine recording for the Telarc label.

No surprise, therefore, that the Rachmaninov No. 2 will be one of the BSO's tour pieces during its monthlong visit to the Far East. And no surprise, either, that Zinman and the orchestra gave a lovely performance of the piece last night in Meyerhoff Hall.

There was a moment or two in the first movement where one felt that the performance went on too long -- but that was the composer's fault, not the conductor's. The second movement was terrific. There was an urgent cat-like tread in its outer sections. And in the contrasting middle section, the sense of motion never faltered; the accuracy of the BSO's string section in Rachmaninov's difficult swirling figures never faltered.

Conductor and orchestra met the challenge of the sentimental third movement with with a full emotional throttle. This was a performance of unembarrassedly luscious sighs. And in the hyperactive final movement, the conductor let the music have its head without losing his. This was Zinman at pretty near his best, shaping phrases with care, building momentum inexorably and intelligently and finally letting the coda explode with strength and optimism and without a sense of strain.

The playing of the orchestra in the Rachmaninov was beautiful, as it was in Copland's "El Salon Mexico, which opened the program.

To these ears, however, the latter was a less successful performance. If this piece is to work, it has to have a certain casual languor: the conductor must always be aware of the wayward Latin dance pulse. But Zinman's performance was driving, rather than dancing. The rhythm should be loose and inviting, not tight and unyielding.

The conductor's precise rhythm was put to better use in Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite." There are more romantic and colorful ways than Zinman's with this music; but this was a well-played -- particularly by the BSO's lower brass -- and coherently shaped performance that led relentlessly to the tremendous climax, executed brilliantly by the orchestra.

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