Rachmaninoff, in BSO's hands, turns elegant

Review: Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and conductor Yakov Kreizberg show steel and polish.

October 27, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's current "Favorites" program looks like just a case of choosing one from column A (favorite symphonies), one from column B (favorite concertos). After all, there isn't too much that Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff have in common. But last night's performance of the former's Scottish Symphony and the latter's Piano Concerto No. 3 brought out a rather surprising bond between them - elegance.

Maybe that shouldn't have been surprising. Maybe Rachmaninoff's music is so often pushed over the top into a mushy, super-romantic goo, or exploited primarily for opportunities to demonstrate blatant virtuosity, that it seems far removed from Mendelssohn's supremely tasteful realm. At Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the two composers sounded more like soul mates.

Making this intriguing connection possible was Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, whose supremely elegant approach to the Rachmaninoff Third picked up where the BSO and guest conductor Yakov Kreizberg left off before intermission with Mendelssohn's evocative symphony.

Where others may bring greater tonal weight and more expansive, passionate outbursts to this concerto (the heart-stirring Bruno Leonardo Gelber comes to mind), Andsnes emphasized the gentler side of the same notes. The pianist's opening phrases were a model of understatement; he proceeded to keep his formidable technique in check, producing a shimmering glow.

There was plenty of steel behind that shine, however; it lashed out in the cadenza and again in the more forceful passages of the remaining movements. Throughout, Andsnes articulated even the wildest cascades with extraordinary refinement, refusing to be tempted into empty bravura. There was a lyrical eloquence to his every phrase.

Kreizberg, who demonstrated his own brand of sensitivity at the BSO's "Symphony With a Twist" concert last weekend, seemed equally determined to serve up the concerto in style. Like Andsnes, he let the music speak for itself; nothing was unduly underlined.

Aside from occasional unevenness in the brass and woodwinds, the orchestra responded beautifully, cohesively. The violas, in particular, produced a lush patina whenever they got hold of a soulful tune.

The Mendelssohn symphony, with its storm-tossed landscapes, tender sentiments and folksy dances, received a taut performance. Kreizberg did not stint on lyricism (the Adagio was given plenty of room to sing), but he always had the proportions and emotions balanced.

Although the BSO has sounded richer and more disciplined, there was a good deal to savor, notably Steven Barta's rollicking clarinet work in the second movement.

A noble effort

Before heading to the BSO, I was able to catch most of a remarkable concert at the Peabody Conservatory billed as "A Musical Response" to Sept. 11. Conductor Benjamin Loeb rounded up volunteers to form an orchestra large enough to tackle Bruckner's 75-minute Symphony No. 7 and a contemporary composer to write reflections on the recent events that were inserted between movements of the symphony.

Loeb was conducting the daunting Bruckner score for the first time; it showed. But his straightforward momentum had its rewards, and he held the ensemble together for the most part. The strings, notably violas and cellos, proved quite reliable.

As for the new pieces by young English composer John Traill, the ones I heard revealed a firm command of orchestration and some vivid thematic ideas (using Bruckner's as starting points). Interrupting the flow of the symphony was not quite fair to Bruckner, but, as an artistic statement in the rough wake of the terror attacks, the project struck a noble chord.

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