Pianist Browning, at Meyerhoff, takes on the stormy Brahms concerto

September 29, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The cool detachment, near faultless control and nervous edge of his playing is what has made pianist John Browning so dTC persuasive an interpreter of the Prokofiev and Ravel concertos. Those qualities were on hand last night in Meyerhoff Hall when Mr. Browning joined Zdenek Macal and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor.

Unfortunately, Mr. Browning's assets are not those necessary for success in this stormy, passionate concerto. This pianist generates enough sound for the piece, but it is not the right kind of sound: It is somewhat metallic, and it is presented in terms of light and shade without regard to color. To these ears, Mr. Browning's playing was too emotionally restricted to be either lyrically expressive or dramatically effective. He did not make the work's slow movement tender enough nor make the great moments in the first movement -- such as its tumultuous double octaves -- sound sufficiently Byronic. There was some lovely playing that included beautifully weighted soft playing in the passage leading to the first movement's cadenza and an excitingly paced finale. But for the most part this was a performance that made one feel that nothing was happening.

The pianist received a sympathetic collaboration from Macal and the orchestra. Macal, for example, resisted the temptation to overplay the opening -- with its first theme over the thunder of drums -- and was able to create the kind of suspense in that extended tutti that makes one anticipate all the more the pianist's delayed entrance. There was some finely drawn detail along the way -- none of which detracted from the sweep of this huge piece.

The concert concluded with a reading of Brahms' Symphony No. 2. It was a performance that built excitement as it progressed, ending in the sort of peroration, trombones snarling and trumpets blazing, that the score asks for. There may have been no revelations, perhaps, but Macal's warm conducting never allowed this oft-played symphony to sound tired. The program will be repeated tonight at 8:15 and Saturday at 11 a.m.

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