Maestro masters French music

Review: Yuri Temirkanov's second concert with the BSO matches the assurance and beauty of his first.

January 29, 2000|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The verdict is in. Yuri Temirkanov whacked it out of the park last Thursday -- and out of the county last night.

Out-of-town critics, this one included, agreed wholeheartedly with the Baltimoreans who gave the Russian conductor a 12-minute standing ovation at the end of his inaugural concert as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony brought out the best in leader and players alike.

Still, one concert does not a honeymoon make, and Temirkanov had something to prove. Long service with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic left him with a reputation in the West as a specialist in Russian music, the aesthetic equivalent of a single-issue candidate.

He thinks otherwise, and one of the reasons he came to Baltimore was to prove the point.

That's why he chose Mahler, not Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich, to kick off his tour of duty at the BSO, and that's why he chose an even more daring program -- four French pieces -- for his second concert at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

On paper, of course, nothing could look less daring than the ever-popular Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. But I've been going to concerts for a quarter-century, and in that time I have heard only a few idiomatic-sounding performances of French music by Russian-trained musicians.

Ask them to interpret scores whose sonorities are slender and subtle and whose rhythms must be executed with cool control, and they go off the rails, turning pastel clarity into plush-toned vulgarity.

The good news -- no, the great news -- is that Yuri Temirkanov proved himself to be a glorious exception to the rule. Last night he showed that not only is he comfortable with French music, but he has an uncanny grasp of its most elusive qualities.

This was evident right from the first bars of Ravel's "Mother Goose" Suite, a delicately scored, fastidiously worked piece that Temirkanov and the BSO performed to near-perfection.

Ravel's meticulously blended instrumental colors were rendered with extreme elegance -- the sheer beauty of the closing bars of "Empress of the Pagodas" left me breathless -- and delighted smiles on the faces of the musicians left no doubt that they knew how good they sounded.

Debussy's "La Mer" is trickier to bring off, and I heard a few passing moments of uncertain ensemble. But they were minor flaws on the surface of a wonderfully open-hearted performance in which Temirkanov's romanticism came to the fore -- this was an oil painting, not a watercolor -- with electrifying results.

Ravel's "La Valse" also has a romantic aspect well-suited to Russian conductors: it ends in apocalypse. It is easy to forget how profoundly unsettling his great "choreographic poem" (as he called it) must have sounded to those who first heard it in 1920, not long after the cataclysm of World War I.

Out of a bubbling cauldron of musical darkness come snatches of what seem to be a Viennese waltz. Then the full orchestra erupts into the crashing three-quarter time that Johann Strauss made famous, and all at once it is as if the whole world were dancing. Before very long, though, it becomes terrifyingly clear that this is a dance of death, hysterical and uncontrolled. Ravel declined to offer political interpretations of "La Valse," but the phrase he used to describe it -- "fantastic and fatal" -- leaves little to the imagination.

It's no less easy to see how such a dire scenario would appeal to Russian sensibilities, and surely it is no coincidence that George Balanchine, the greatest of Russian choreographers, made "La Valse" into one of the century's most powerful ballets. Would that Temirkanov and the BSO had had New York City Ballet at their disposal on Friday; the orchestra's performance of this gripping piece set me to cheering.

Ravel's Left-Hand Piano Concerto has a more direct tie to World War I. It was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist who lost his right arm in the war, then invited several prominent composers, among them Sergei Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten, to write concertos that he could play with his left hand alone.

Alas, Wittgenstein wasn't a very good pianist, and couldn't do a thing with the knuckle-breaker that Ravel produced for him in 1930 -- his recording of it is famously disastrous -- but two-handed players with bigger techniques immediately took up the concerto, seeing in it a unique showpiece.

In recent years, several American pianists have been forced to explore the left-hand repertoire, most notably Leon Fleisher, who lost part of the use of his right hand 35 years ago; he became a specialist in left-hand piano music, and made the Ravel concerto his battle piece.

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