BSO settles scores

Review: The orchestra gives two obscure symphonies beautifully rounded sound.

January 19, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Did the first symphonies composed by Rachmaninoff and Scriabin deserve early failure and subsequent ne- glect?

That was the unspoken question posed Thursday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. I'm not sure it's wise to program two obscure, ambitious, 45-minute Russian pieces, but guest conductor Dmitri Kitaenko and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra made persuasive cases for both.

Rachmaninoff, who hid in a concert hall stairwell while his First Symphony was being premiered in 1897, ended up suffering severe depression afterward.

It was probably the performance more than the music that ruined the premiere. The brooding symphony, which may have been Rachmaninoff's response to a failed romance, takes time to unfold and contains subtle thematic details. It requires a sensitivity and insight that was beyond the conductor.

To be fair, Rachmaninoff didn't exactly create a sterling example of design or content. The symphony could use more structural tightness and melodic inspiration.

That said, the score deserves an occasional outing. It tells us how the young composer was moving away from the more straightforward style of Tchaikovsky and other Russian greats into a personal idiom. Rachmaninoff's command of orchestration is readily apparent, too.

Kitaenko's clear-headed approach made it easy to follow the connective threads - the musical mottos that the composer used to unify the work - and to appreciate the score's dark-edged beauty. Here and there, more deeply expressive phrasing would have been welcome, but the performance argued Rachmaninoff's case well. The BSO responded with cohesive playing; guest concertmaster Ilya Kaler's contributions were stellar.

Apparently, Scriabin didn't endure as much anguish over the initial failure of his Symphony No. 1; in short order, he was churning out the music that made him famous, music filled with eroticism and what Henry Miller memorably described as "cocaine and rainbows."

Actually, it's harder to understand why the public and critics disliked his symphony than Rachmaninoff's. Scriabin's richly orchestrated creation makes a more directly tuneful appeal, comes in shorter, more tightly organized sections and finishes with what usually is a sure thing - vocal soloists and chorus.

Once again, Kitaenko assured a coherent, committed performance. He helped turn the moody opening movement into a particularly compelling statement, and had the almost elfin scherzo sparkling nicely. The finale, with a purply poem by Scriabin praising art ("the lustrous hope of life"), flowed along with considerable charm.

The orchestra continued to produce a firm, beautifully rounded sound. Steven Barta made much of the many solo clarinet lines that run eloquently through the score.

Soprano Susan Platts and tenor John Daniecki sang with considerable warmth. When the chorus finally made its brief contribution at the last line, it was with a vibrant, well-blended tone and keen attentiveness to dynamic shadings.

Affection for the ensemble, which BSO management decided to disband at season's end, poured out Thursday. Kitaenko graciously gave the choristers a pre-performance bow, which the orchestra members heartily joined in on; after the performance, ovations for the group were punctuated by a few shouts - one denouncing a BSO official, another proclaiming "We love you, chorus!"

This morning's program includes the Scriabin symphony, and also features the chorus in selections from Rachmaninoff's a cappella Vespers.

Performance

What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Cathedral and Preston streets

When: 11 a.m. today

Tickets: $20 to $42

Call: 410-783-8000

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