Zinman, Hewitt at their best with Beethoven

November 22, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

David Zinman's all-Beethoven program last night in Meyerhoff Hall with the Baltimore Symphony and guest piano soloist, Angela Hewitt, could have been called "Beethoven, the Humorist." This composer has become such an icon of Western man's isolation and angst that we tend to forget that his music is often as furiously comic as it is tragic.

Sometimes Beethoven's music in this vein seems merely to display his attraction the inane -- as it is in the "King Stephen Overture," with which the program began. But even with this piece -- a potboiler written for an official occasion -- Beethoven experimented with the comic possibilities of outlandish juxtapositions. Zinman and the orchestra played the piece superbly -- with a light touch and with appropriately manic energy.

In the Symphony No. 4, which concluded the program, one sees some of the same principles of juxtaposition at work. Beethoven uses the form of the symphony as he received it from the hands of Haydn -- a first movement that begins with a slow introduction and then moves into an allegro -- and rings changes on it. Here, the slow introduction is genuinely ominous, mysterious and menacing; this will be no joke, the listener thinks. But, of course, the joke is on the listener: for that introduction leads into one of the composer's most engaging and apparently light-hearted first movements.

Zinman's performance was enormously impressive. The conductor relished, as he almost invariably does in Beethoven, in fast speeds -- and not just in the composer's fast movements. Even the second movement Adagio was taken quickly. But this was a performance that demonstrated that what is fast need not eschew the expressive. This wonderful reading may have moved fast, but it flowed -- it never rushed.

This listener cannot remember ever hearing an account of Beethoven's First Concerto that he enjoyed as much as last night's performance by Angela Hewitt. From Hewitt, who has a well-deserved reputation as a distinguished interpreter of 18th-century music, one might have expected an interpretation of this early concerto that was chastely Mozartean. Nothing could have been further from the truth, however. Hewitt is a very graceful player -- her subtlety of touch recalls the great days of Kempff, Haskil and Curzon -- but also a daring and volatile one. She played this piece in a way that never violated its classical dimensions, but which, nevertheless, exuded an almost dangerous sense of quirky fantasy.

Pub Date: 11/22/96

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