Before he had to grapple with the fierceness of fate and the demoralizing effects of deafness, Beethoven produced some of his most supremely optimistic, uplifting music. Before he had to endure the condemnation of Soviet cultural czars and the debilitating effects of a bad fall, Prokofiev did the same.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's latest program offers an arresting look at both cases.
Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 combines martial bravado, tender reflection and downright cocky humor. It presents the keyboard in a bold relief that even the mighty Mozart had not quite approached. In the candle-glow days of 1795, when the concerto was first played with the composer at the piano, it must have seemed as if a blinding spotlight had suddenly illuminated the soloist.
Not that the concerto is just a look-at-me sort of piece; it calls for gentleness and poetry, too. In short, it requires a masterful protagonist. That's exactly what it got last night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Elisso Virsaladze, a splendid Russian pianist too little appreciated in this country, brought a sterling technique and polychromatic phrasing to the dialogue. This was playing of aristocratic bearing on the one hand, down-to-earth revelry on the other.
The first movement cadenza (Virsaladze chose the longest, wildest of those Beethoven supplied) was delivered with particular panache. She molded the Largo with great eloquence, articulating the closing measures in sunset colors.
The pianist caught the finale's rambunctiousness perfectly. Again, the sheer variety and imagination in her touch yielded intense pleasure.
The BSO did not always negotiate subtle dynamic shifts cleanly and, here and there, could have used an even smoother tonal blend, but otherwise responded warmly and spiritedly to Yuri Temirkanov's attentive conducting.
Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, written in the waning days of World War II, suggests the letting loose of long-suppressed emotions. It's an abstract, yet remarkably vivid, statement of affirmation. Dark, dissonant thoughts hover around the edges, only to be blown away by saucy, almost giddy assertions laced with brass and percussion.
Temirkanov, whose affinity for this composer's language is as intense as it is enlightening, led a taut, passionate performance. He made the score speak and sing. Encountering such an authoritative, visceral interpretation is quite an experience.
The strings, which triumphed last week in Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, triumphed again with their burnished tone and precise attacks. The winds had a few unfocused moments but provided plenty of character and bracing power. The percussion battery excelled.
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: 8 tonight, 3 p.m. tomorrow
Tickets: $26 to $68