The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been gearing up all week for its upcoming trip across the Atlantic. Judging by last night's performance of tour repertoire at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, European audiences are in for some memorable music-making.
The ensemble's playing had an extraordinary richness of character and underlying vitality that is likely to get even stronger during visits to London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and other cities, just as the occasional technical blemish is likely to be corrected along the way.
It isn't news that the BSO and music director Yuri Temirkanov enjoy an intense rapport, but it was still fascinating to experience it in action again.
A year ago, Temirkanov led the players in a beautifully shaped account of Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 2. His return to the same score yielded even greater pleasure. This time, he made much more of the opening measures; the superbly articulated horn tune suggested a light beckoning in the distance, promising warmth and comfort. The subsequent, nostalgic themes in the strings took on an exceptional depth.
And so it went, from one rapturous passage to another. Temirkanov tapped the brooding poetry of the second movement and had the cellos positively purring its phrases. There was an almost impish charm to the third movement (notwithstanding uneven oboe work), a grandly eloquent sweep to the finale (notwithstanding a couple of not-quite together attacks and some brass notes that could have used a smoother edge).
What counted most was how affectingly conductor and orchestra alike caught the introspective romanticism of Brahms and his Second Symphony. The score sounded at once fresh and as familiar as an old friend. The chance to hear that combination is hardly common in concert halls these days.
Franz Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 made a fitting companion to the Brahms work. Both pieces get a maximum of melodic miles to the gallon from a small thematic germ. This process is more obvious in the single-movement concerto, but no less impressive.
Andre Watts has had an affinity for Liszt since his headline-making New York Philharmonic debut in 1963, playing the composer's first concerto at the age of 16. The pianist still can perk up the ears with his sure technique and ability to produce sparkling colors from a keyboard. Here he also held in reserve a potent thunder that was let loose where it would do the most good, driving home some of the music's most dramatic points.
Temirkanov was, as usual, a most attentive collaborator for Watts, who will be joining the BSO on the European tour.
The woodwinds sounded out of sorts at the start, but gained in solidity; the strings handled their alternately silken and fiery assignment with aplomb. Cellist Mihaly Virizlay's solo blended tenderly with Watts' finely woven phrases in the concerto's reflective section.
To open the program, Temirkanov chose a brief, eloquent piece by Samuel Barber, the Essay for Orchestra No. 1 from 1938, the only American work (except for an encore) that the BSO will take to Europe.
This unapologetically, unaffectedly romantic score is tailor-made for the conductor, though he could make even more out of it, especially the poignant question mark at the end. But there was a good deal of intensity in his phrasing, which inspired particular vibrancy from the strings.
Barber's Essay will be reprised at this morning's "Casual Concert," which also includes Debussy's La Mer and, with Watts again as soloist, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2.
What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: 11 a.m. today
Tickets: $26 to $52