BSO's puzzling 'Legacy'

A new CD collection featuring works of former BSO director David Zinman has some fine music, but misses his true impact.

Classical Music


A new three-CD set of live recordings issued by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, "The Zinman Legacy," has allowed me to return to the scene of the crime: performances of Mozart, Brahms, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Mahler that I reviewed. I can thus not only re-review some of David Zinman's performances, but also some of mine.

First, however, I want to question the use of the words "The Zinman Legacy" for this release. If we talk about the Zinman legacy, we must talk about his celebrated role as an advocate for new American music. And there is no music here by Christopher Rouse, James Willey, Aaron Jay Kernis or any of the other composers Zinman championed in superb performances that helped build his reputation and that of his orchestra.

(The reason for such an omission is fairly obvious. The BSO's management would have an even harder time selling such repertory to buyers of CDs than it did to subscribers during the Zinman years.)

But before discussing how well these discs represent the achievements of the Zinman years -- here are some thoughts on the performances themselves.

Mozart's Symphony No. 41 ('Jupiter')

February 1996

When I listened to this performance, I figured that I must have given it a rave review. And I did -- if only in a few words. The occasion was an all-Mozart program in which Richard Goode was the soloist in the composer's Piano Concerto No. 27. Much of the review dwelled upon Goode's wondrous performance of this most elusive concerto, though I did call attention to "Zinman's secure command of the orchestra and the tonal refinement and delicacy of the BSO's wind players" in "a performance of the ... 'Jupiter Symphony' that was as humane and warm as it was crisp and classical."

I only wished I had said more. Rehearing this extraordinary "Jupi-ter" confirms my opinion that the greatest living Mozart conductor is Zinman, whose interpretations combine the clarity and directness of Otto Klemperer with the smiling warmth of Bruno Walter.

No one knows how the Sym-phony No. 41 acquired its sobriquet, "Jupiter." It is appropriate only in the sense that it evokes the most magnificent of the gods and the most mysterious of the phenomena in our solar system. That the fabric of the work's gigantic fugal finale is at once utterly simple and bewilderingly elaborate is a miracle. Even more miraculous is how anyone could put these opposites in such a perfectly balanced work.

Much the same might be said of Zinman's performance, which combines simplicity and directness of utterance, unostentatious mastery of his craft, total avoidance of flamboyance and complete dedication to the score.

Fine as some of Zinman's other performances are, none attains the level of this "Jupiter."

Brahms' Symphony No. 3

September 1991

I originally wrote that this performance "exhibited many of the virtues that Zinman brings to music: clarity of rhythm and articulation and naturalness of interpretation." But I "still wished for a little more in the way of interpretive detours in this straight-ahead performance. It was -- to make a motoring metaphor -- more like a ride in one of the better Toyotas than one in a Porsche. The former is more reliable, the latter more interesting."

Almost eight years later, that's still how I feel. The sense of restraint and feeling for transparency of texture that help make Zinman an inspired guide to the formal perfection found in classical-era works of Mozart and Haydn serve him less well in the conflicted music of later Romantics, such as Brahms. That composer's Symphony No. 3, for example, demands interpretive freedom and flexibility that appear to make Zinman uncomfortable. In the opening movement, the conductor omits the repeat of the exposition, thus short-changing the struggle between the sweeping main theme, announced by the winds and then taken up by the violins, and the meditative second subject, first heard on the clarinet and elaborated by the violas.

This mood of conflict is resolved in the subdued coda. But Zinman's omission of the repeat never permits the conflict to reach critical mass and create passionate intensity sufficient to set off the coda.

And the performance has other flaws. Although Brahms was a classicist, whose music is bound by bonds of iron, the evidence suggests that the composer interpreted his own music with considerable flexibility. Of one of his own performances of the Fourth Symphony, he was heard to grumble that "I could not make enough slowings and accelerations." He might have said that about Zinman's conducting in the Third Symphony's finale. The river-like, back-and-forth coursing that should carry the listener onward is ignored in favor of metronomic rectitude.

Tchaikovsky Fifth

June 1996

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