Fresh sounds from familiar works

Music review

March 04, 2000|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

One problem with the sort of fare featured in the Baltimore Symphony's "Favorites" series is that the music can sometimes seem a little too familiar. After dozens upon dozens of hearings, what could yet another rendition could possibly bring to our understanding of these pieces?

Quite a lot, actually, if the performance is as spirited and inspired as the one Eliahu Inbal and the Baltimore Symphony gave at the Meyerhoff last night.

There was nothing new about the repertoire. Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 is a piece even those who don't listen to classical music can hum (it was, in fact, the source for an ancient pop hit, "Full Moon and Empty Arms"), and Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" is nearly as well-known. Somehow, though, Inbal and the orchestra managed to strip away layers of cliche and reminded us why these pieces became so popular in the first place.

Pianist Brigitte Engerer had a lot to do with the vitality of the Tchaikovsky. This is a piece that doesn't stint on its use of the orchestra, and as such can easily overpower a pianist. Engerer, however, had power to spare, easily matching the orchestra's volume in the opening ascending-chord sequence.

Her power and tone were mightily impressive. She maintained a rich, singing tone even in the lowest reaches of the keyboard, and displayed astonishing power through difficult doubled-octave runs. But Engerer's emphasis on sound production came at some cost, as her over-reliance on the sustain pedal left some passages blurred and muddy.

Even so, the fervor she brought to the piece more than carried the day. The final movement was especially stirring, with Engerer seeming to urge the orchestra on to a spirited (and lavishly applauded) conclusion.

There weren't quite such obvious fireworks in the Dvorak, but the orchestra certainly offered its share of virtuoso playing. Inbal, conducting from memory, seemed especially keen to exploit the score's sense of color, and let the players shine throughout.

In particular, the Largo was an absolute delight. From the dramatic swell of the brass in the opening chorale to the unexpected intimacy of the string quartet sequence, Inbal emphasized both the sonic luster and compositional import of Dvorak's orchestrations. In his hands, it truly meant something when a theme was passed from flutes to clarinets to strings, and luscious color of some of the instrumental voices -- especially the English horn, the trombones, and the horn section -- made the performance especially memorable.

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