Making familiar seem fresh

Review: Temirkanov weaves together the common threads of heroism in works by Shostakovich and Beethoven.

February 11, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In his first two programs as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Yuri Temirkanov proved that he could make this orchestra shine in a demanding showpiece like Mahler's Symphony No. 2, and coax an utterly idiomatic performance from it in works like Ravel's "Ma Mere L'Oye Suite" and Debussy's "La Mer."

Last night, he pulled off a far more difficult trick: He made the unfamiliar seem inviting, and the overly familiar sound fresh and compelling.

In this case, the works in question were the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1, and the Beethoven Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"). An odd match at first glance, but Temirkanov found common a thread in the heroism inherent in both works, and brought enough passion and dynamism to the works to make them seem perfectly paired.

Of course, given the vigorous emotionality of cellist Natalia Gutman's performance in the Shostakovich, it would be unfair to give Temirkanov all the credit. Written for Mstislav Rostropovich, the Shostakovich concerto is a demanding work, calling for a virtuosic command of the full range of the instrument. Gutman, though, not only rose to the challenge but exceeded it, playing with such passion and lyricism that her technical triumphs were almost beside the point.

Rather than try to tame the work through pretty playing, Gutman embraced its turbulent heart, digging into the strings with gusto in the opening movement. But as gruff as her opening statement was, her tone was shot through with honey, and there was a wonderful dulcet quality to her playing when she moved up the fingerboard and into the upper register.

Gutman's playing wasn't just about instrumental color, however. She easily conveyed the emotional narrative that fueled the piece, from ghostly whisper of the harmonics in the moderato to the bravura everything-and-the-kitchen-sink variations of the cadenza. And under Temirkanov, the orchestra was the perfect foil for her impassioned playing, bringing a deft, folk-dance agility to the final movement that beautifully contrasted with darker drama Gutman's playing. It was an absolutely stunning collaboration.

Still, for many in the audience, it was the Beethoven that held the greater interest. Not because it was more familiar, necessarily, but because of the very distinctive approach to that composer taken by Temirkanov's predecessor, David Zinman.

Zinman's approach to Beethoven took its cues from research done by early music specialists, and rejected the romanticized approach of conductors like Willem Furtwangler and Otto von Klemperer. To Zinman's mind, Beethoven was of the same world as Mozart and Haydn, and as such deserved a lighter, brisker touch.

Zinman made a point of rigorously adhering to Beethoven's metronome markings. Before the metronome (which was introduced in 1815), a composer could only describe tempo in relative terms, like allegro, andante, or largo. With the metronome, however, the composer could offer specific instructions -- and Beethoven did.

Where Zinman's avoidance of sonorous sustained phrases sometimes left Beethoven's melodic lines seeming dry, Temirkov's insistence on liquid, flowing phrases brought a satisfying fluidity to the music.

Because Temirkanov's approach emphasized Beethoven's use of dynamic contrast as each movement's variations are played out, it was wonderfully easy to follow the melodic logic of the piece.

But it was the light he brought to the emotional content that made this a memorable "Eroica." Temirkanov made the tragedy of the second movement almost palpable; for a moment, it was as if Beethoven had become a Slav. Yet when he launched into the scherzo, it was as if the clouds had parted and wildlife was frolicking Disney-style in the glade. Seldom is the full breadth of Beethoven's spiritual landscape rendered so vividly.

The program is repeated tonight and Saturday.

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