When Edward Polochick described Leon Fleisher, his onetime teacher, as "in my book, the greatest musician alive today," he wasn't being obsequious.
Classical musicians in Baltimore adore Fleisher as baseball fans adore Cal Ripken, and Sunday's "Beethoven Spectacular," in celebration of the 15th anniversary of Polochick's Concert Artists of Baltimore ensemble, was a testament to Fleisher's legacy as pianist, teacher, musical philosopher and cultural force.
Fleisher confessed in these pages last week that there were "no guarantees" in his first performance in some 40 years of Beethoven's mighty Emperor concerto, but he ended up offering a great deal: There was his distinctive and amazing rhythmic drive, which expressed a sense of inevitability. And then there was his unique sense of phrasing, of treating a succession of melodic material in ways his listeners never would have guessed.
There's no denying that Fleisher is a different pianist than when he made his famous recording of this work with George Szell in 1958; the technical glitches were noticeable and not infrequent. And in a few of the more uncomfortable passages, particularly in the third movement, he rushed, turning moments of momentum into unease.
More often than not, though, his handling of the technical aspects was commendable and even daring, and he tore into the famous closing scales at the end of the last movement like a cheetah pursuing his prey.
But this was above all a performance full of poignancy, and nowhere was that felt more than in the slow movement, where both Fleisher's controlled, clear-sighted and noble phrasing and the muted color that Polochick coaxed out of the ensemble reached out to the ether.
Of course, the audience was there to celebrate the Concert Artists of Baltimore, and Polochick gave an exciting account of the monumental Symphony No. 9 after intermission. Although it is a smaller troupe than the Baltimore Symphony and usually performs at the College of Notre Dame or at Goucher College, the ensemble rose to the sonic demands presented by the Meyerhoff. The players demonstrated remarkable energy and projection, doubtless due in part to Polochick's vigorous, dramatic podium presence.
In general, this was an intense, gutsy, take-no-prisoners approach that was viscerally affecting; tempos were quick, and textures were clear throughout. While some conductors go for a more atmospheric and mysterious haze at the beginning of the first movement, Polochick favored a leaner, more direct approach that shot right into the heart of the movement.
What was perhaps lacking, though, was poise, particularly in the slow movement. This extended respite from the tumult of the preceding movements is one of Beethoven's most profound creations - on par with the slow movements of his late quartets - and this performance, while beautiful, seemed casual.
But overall, this was an admirable account of a complex score. The last movement, which adds the famous chorus and solo quartet singing Friedrich Schiller's An die Freude, conveyed the sense of brotherhood and joy for which Schiller and Beethoven strove.
The chorus had wonderful diction and an enormous dynamic range; the vocal soloists were both musical and audible (no small feat in this uncompromising work), and the orchestra played its heart out.