Bodybuilder-pianist performs Tchaikovsky piece with emotion

February 09, 1996|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

From the looks of him, Tzimon Barto is the only pianist in the world who can play the No. 1 Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, then bench-press the Steinway when he is finished.

The enormous bodybuilder-pianist who was in town last weekend to play Tchaikovsky's top warhorse with conductor Gisele Ben-Dor and the Annapolis Symphony probably never will be confused with Alfred Brendel or Charles Rosen as a patrician intellectual of the keyboard.

Mr. Barto's playing is too much of the moment for all that. He is an unabashedly emotional artist who delights in accentuating nuances of color, tempo and volume in highly personal -- make that quirky -- ways. Sometimes it works (the skittish interlude at the center of the Andantino was terrific); sometimes it doesn't. But he is viscerally exciting, Ms. Ben-Dor loves his playing, and the orchestra gave him an alert, sympathetic accompaniment that was most satisfying.

The evening's other potboiler was Gustav Holst's astrological tour de force, "The Planets," which was accorded an energetic, often colorful reading.

More character might have been in order here and there. Mars sounded more peevish than warlike, and Mercury might have sparkled more as he delivered his messages, but the total effect was impressive.

Save for an inaudible harp and some unusually flaccid horn playing, the orchestra sounded rich and well defined. Ms. Ben-Dor shaped the slow movements most effectively and those ethereal "oohs and ahs" from the "Women of Neptune" were everything you would want them to be.

Five excerpts from Shostakovich's "The Golden Age" ballet may have seemed a bit of a lily gilder to some of the hardy souls who braved last Friday's snow, but this is wonderfully spiky music that is close to the conductor's heart. It sounded it.

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