Rachmaninoff spellbinding, but BSO stiffs Tchaikovsky

April 11, 1997|By David Donovan | David Donovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Baltimore Symphony is performing two staples of the 19th-century Russian repertoire through tomorrow at the Meyerhoff, the Tchaikovsky Sixth and Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto.

Both are so famous that they are often referred to as war-horses. Unfortunately, only the Rachmaninoff transcended its reputation Wednesday night.

Andre Watts delivered a sparkling and no-nonsense treatment of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto. His performance delivered in almost every department.

Best of all was the eloquent second movement, when Watts played with tenderness and precision. Throughout, his cadenzas were spellbinding.

The final movement had the perfect blend of playfulness and lushness that is hallmark Rachmaninoff. Guest conductor Jerzy Semkow and the Baltimore Symphony were a little too strait-laced, but fortunately, Watts kept things from becoming too routine.

So much has been written about the extra-musical, historical aspects of the Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" Symphony that one forgets what a truly original work it is.

The bold harmonic language, the two scherzos and, most of all, the tragic final movement opened the door for Mahler, Sibelius and even Shostakovich.

Unfortunately, Semkow did little to illuminate the glories of this symphony.

Semkow wields one of the most gigantic batons this side of a baseball bat. His stick technique consisted of several giant swipes in the direction of the orchestra that too often resulted in poor ensemble and sloppy attacks.

The first movement got off to a good start, thanks to Phillip Kolker's haunting bassoon solo. Also very effective was the delicate clarinet solo by Steven Barta. But Semkow's direction was just too unsteady, and the movement never got a full head of steam. The coda limped to its conclusion with no sense of drama.

The central scherzos were both near-catastrophes. The elegant 5/4 movement was rushed to the point of being a parody of itself. Several times, Semkow gave special attention to some tricky rhythmical sections, and his attention actually made the situation worse rather than more precise. The third movement's big march tune was vulgar, with the brass overpowering the marvelous string melodies.

The final, tragic slow movement, because of its dark orchestration and painful harmonies, fared better than the preceding three movements.

The direction from the podium did not bring out the emotional depth of the music.

Maybe the remaining performances will improve, but this "Pathetique" was ordinary and disappointing.

Andre Watts

When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow

Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $25-$57

Call: 410-783-8000

Pub Date: 4/11/97

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