Show of precocity, profundity at BSO

Litton a worthy substitute for still-ailing Temirkanov


January 16, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Prokofiev, like Shostakovich, hit the music world early on with a burst of precocity and went on to achieve a remarkable level of profundity. Last night, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra offered an incisive look at both qualities.

Like last week's program, which included Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, this one, devoted to Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Symphony No. 5, was to have been conducted by BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov. He remains in St. Petersburg, recuperating from a persistent case of the flu. But, also like last week's program, effectively led by James Judd, this one had a worthy substitute on the podium in Andrew Litton.

In both cases, you couldn't help but notice how differently the BSO played works by composers deeply associated with Temirkanov. Instead of the dark string tone and earthy brass attacks he favors, there was a more transparent, slightly less grabbing sound. There was also a little less in the way of unbridled passion, the sort Temirkanov unleashed when the BSO performed Prokofiev's Fifth two seasons ago. But if both guest conductors kept the lid on to a certain degree, they still generated strongly animated, almost always disciplined music-making from the ensemble.

Litton and the orchestra clearly got an extra lift from the soloist in the concerto. Yefim Bronfman made child's play out of the thicket of notes, whether in the enormous cadenza of the first movement or the perpetual motion dash of the second. It was very easy to understand why the first audience was baffled, even horrified, by the unabashed wildness of the percussive piece. But it was also easy to hear what they missed - the brilliant manipulation of themes, the tension of the rhythms, the contrasts of mood, the vitality of both the keyboard and orchestral writing.

Bronfman made a show of wiping his brow after the storms of that first movement, then offering his handkerchief to Litton, concertmaster Jonathan Carney and even the audience. But the pianist didn't really break a sweat. There was a calm virtuosity to his playing, a security that enabled him to get beyond the most blatant elements in the score and conjure up a wealth of character.

At the premiere of his concerto, Prokofiev responded to the booing and hissing from the crowd by defiantly playing an encore. Bronfman, who received a much more positive response, of course, played one too. He pulled off his tie like Sinatra at the end of a long Las Vegas set and brought down the house with the finale of Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7, taken at breakneck speed and articulated with thunderous elan.

Although Litton and the BSO proved to be adept partners in the concerto, they really came into their own in the Fifth Symphony. The conductor beautifully molded the opening movement's contrasting shades and lyrical outbursts; he drew out the closing measures with such intensity that it was possible to hear the pain behind the notes, rather than just steely strength.

The scampering second movement emerged as in a single, giddy breath. And the Adagio, where the composer makes his most compelling statement about "the grandeur of the human spirit" and also the suffering it must endure, unfolded powerfully.

Small details in the playing could have used tightening and greater finesse, but the BSO was nonetheless in compelling form.


Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 tonight, 11 a.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $20 to $75

Call: 410-783-8000

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