Halim's Liszt has verve and heart

January 31, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In his own time -- and, until very recently, in ours -- Franz Liszt's "Totentanz" provoked outrage, particularly from those who preferred to think of him as a vulgarian and exhibitionist.

The "Totentanz," a set of six variations for piano and orchestra on the "Dies irae," the plainsong melody in the Requiem Mass, opens with a sinister march and dissonant cadenzas that erupt with enough force to crack the earth's tectonic plates. The quasi-glissandi of the second variation turn into the real thing, and their reappearance in the final variation can give a listener whiplash.

But as pianist Eduardus Halim demonstrated last night with the Baltimore Symphony and conductor Sergiu Comissiona, the "Totentanz" is a great work as well as an exciting one. The pianist never permitted the listener to forget the music's hard, almost Bartokian, edge and its sophisticated use of contrapuntal devices.

This is not to say that Halim's was a "modern" performance. The 36-year-old pianist -- Indonesian-born and Juilliard-trained -- is a romanticist, and a great one at that. He has the technique to produce subtle nuance and tonal shading. He can use the bass notes to create drama, but he also possesses a floating right-hand singing touch that loses none of its penetration in passages requiring very rapid finger work.

In the "Totentanz" -- as well as in the same composer's E-flat Concerto -- Halim's bravura was matched by tenderness and poetic feeling. At intermission there was talk of the pianist's similarities to Vladimir Horowitz, with whom Halim studied during the final years of that master's life.

Indeed, Halim's hand position at the piano -- fingers often flat and wrists below the keys -- resembles Horowitz's. His tone has a similar knife-edge definition. And his phrasing has a Horowitz-like freedom, permitting him to move easily from the gently intimate to the explosive, generating enormous tension.

But Halim's playing has a classical poise that Horowitz's often lacked. Rather than to call him Horowitz's disciple, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that Halim is his successor.

The pianist was accompanied sympathetically by conductor and orchestra. In the other works on the program (Kodaly's "Hary Janos" Suite, Enescu's "Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1" and Smetana's "Vltava"), Comissiona, the BSO's beloved former music director, displayed his usual magic in drawing a romantically warm sound from an orchestra, but with less than his customary fervor.

Pub Date: 1/31/98

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