Surprisingly good Shostakovich

November 10, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra had never performed Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 until last night. And BSO music director David Zinman, who became interested in Shostakovich only a few years back, had never before conducted this greatest (and perhaps most difficult) of the Russian's symphonic works.

One may thus be forgiven for having attended the performance with an attitude that might be described as both charitable and expecting disaster. What a surprise, therefore, to report that the performance was, if not exactly a triumph, close enough to it. Since he conducted the Sixth Symphony two seasons back, Zinman has clearly acquired a new appreciation and understanding of Shostakovich. He was able to make coherent -- even at a heroically slow pace that took almost 28 minutes -- the huge, tragic first movement, with its disparate tempos and its elements of lyrical mourning and brutal pounding. Even better were the three march movements in which a burlesque and a savage ostinato are succeeded by a funeral march. And the way the conductor opened the final movement -- in which the clarinets, followed by the bassoons, lift the music from darkness into light -- felt like an infusion of grace. There were a few rough spots: problems with intonation and with ensemble -- but nothing that cannot be ironed out by tonight's performance.

The performance benefited from some superb solos -- to mention only a few, Keith Kummer's keening English horn recitative in the first movement, timpanist Dennis Kain's astonishingly secure rhythmic drive in the third and Laurie Sokoloff's fine piccolo solos throughout.

Much less successful was a performance of Beethoven's earliest published concerted work -- the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major. The problem was an inexperienced performance by the soloist, Ignat Solzhenitsyn.

Although it is the easiest of the five canonic concertos to perform, the B-flat is perhaps the hardest to put across. Written in the late 1780s, it is essentially a Mozartean concerto -- and not very good Mozart at that. The pianist must respect its limited scale, play with elegance and -- in the final movement -- make the material sound wittier than it is.

Solzhenitsyn -- the 22-year-old son of the Nobel Prize-winning author, Alexander -- did not do any of these things successfully.

Moreover, his technical equipment -- on this occasion, at least -- seemed in disarray. Much of the first -- particularly the so-called "Hammerklavier" cadenza -- and last movements seemed somewhat labored and uneven in their passage work. And in the slow movement -- excepting the final measures -- the pianist seemed to be sleepwalking.

The young pianist was deemed worthy enough by music director Wolfgang Sawallisch to be engaged to perform Brahms' First Concerto at the opening of the Philadelphia Orchestra's Carnegie Hall season. This would suggest that he may be capable of better things than he showed last night.

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