Noble music, nobly performed

January 13, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Certain works of music can best be described as noble, in the warmest sense of that word. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is offering two of them in its latest program, with noble performances to match.

Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, which isn't nicknamed the "Emperor" for nothing, exudes self-confidence and purposefulness, but never arrogance, never an empty show of force. For all of its bold strokes from the orchestra and bravura flashes from the keyboard, there is profound logic and beauty in each measure, a granitic strength binding the three movements together.

Brahms' Symphony No. 4 suggests an old, worldly-wise monarch who has seen it all, tasted it all, regrets little. The opening sigh from the strings is tinged with melancholy, to be sure, but hardly despair. There is tremendous assurance and power behind the notes, even when they are at their gentlest; tremendous warmth, even when, as at the opening of the second movement, they are at their sternest.

On Friday evening at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov approached both scores with a rich appreciation for this depth of character. For the Beethoven concerto, he had an extraordinary partner in British pianist John Lill, whose thorough understanding of the structural components of the piece and identification with its lyrical grandeur proved deeply satisfying.

The calm authority and patrician sensibilities in Lill's playing not only suited the turbulent moments, but helped reveal the heart behind the concerto's firm exterior. It's a rare pianist today who can bring so much variety of touch to this music, producing subtly shaded colors and bending the rhythm ever so gently here and there. There wasn't a single mechanical gesture.

As a result, the first movement had tremendous character, the second an uncommonly affecting tenderness, the finale an extra dash of brilliance. Temirkanov had the BSO fully involved from the first chord, which emerged with exceptional tonal weight

There were a few less than golden spots in the execution. Intonation lapses marred the mysterious transition between the second and third movements, for example, and the timpani's gradually slowing commentary during the magical passage just before the finale's last charge sounded a little too intrusive. But, overall, the orchestra rose to the occasion eloquently.

Temirkanov launched the Brahms symphony superbly, holding onto the violin's first note - the beginning of the first sigh - to make the emerging theme all the more poignant. Throughout this first movement, the conductor found means of giving the score's autumnal light an extra, warming glow.

He could have taken a little more time with the second movement and perhaps applied more nuance to the cocky third, but his pacing and phrasing of the finale had admirable power.

Again, a few little details in the orchestra lacked clarity (primarily in the horns). But, as audiences have come to expect by now, the rapport between players and music director was tight, the sense of mutual involvement and exploration intense.

The program will be repeated at 8 tonight and 3 p.m. tomorrow. Call 410-783-8000.

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