BSO sizzles, warming to Beethoven-Elgar task

Music Review

January 24, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There's nothing like some hot music-making to take your mind off the arctic weather. And things were definitely hot Thursday night at the Meyerhoff, where the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra offered one of its most satisfying concerts so far this season. Heat-seekers get one more chance to hear it tomorrow afternoon.

The program contains two grand works - Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Elgar's Symphony No. 1.

The concerto is a new vehicle for Chinese-born Lang Lang. He learned the score at the request of BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov, who was to have been on the podium, but got sidelined by the flu. Stepping in is British conductor James Judd, who made his BSO debut two weeks ago under the same circumstances and really seems to click with the musicians. (He'll substitute again for next week's Sibelius/Mahler program featuring violinist Gidon Kremer.)

The Beethoven concerto straddles two worlds - the elegance, reserve and proportion of 18th-century classicism and the composer's boldly individualistic style. On Thursday, Lang Lang, best known for unbridled romps through hyper-romantic repertoire, reined himself in to fit the Mozartean side of the concerto beautifully, but was ready to whip up the assertive, all-Beethoven side with plenty of firepower if given half a chance.

The pianist really got that chance in the first movement by choosing the longest and wildest of Beethoven's cadenzas. Written several years - and several stylistic advances - after the concerto's premiere, it's a back-to-the-future invention, a case of a composer revisiting his younger self and stirring everything up. Lang Lang had a field day with this over-caffeinated cadenza, generating a marvelous array of moods and sparks.

His gently shaded phrasing in the Largo movement proved deeply satisfying, as did the wit and elan that he generated in the finale. It all added up to a typical Lang Lang performance - decidedly dynamic, seemingly spontaneous, irresistible. And it was fully supported by the orchestra, which produced some exquisite nuances under Judd's ever-attentive guidance.

Elgar's First Symphony also straddles two worlds - the Edwardian one the composer actually knew, and his own private world, sometimes romanticized, sometimes tinted with nostalgia and melancholy. I think the music touches, unknowingly, on one more world, too - the one that would soon be consumed by war and other man-made horrors as the 20th century unfolded.

The noble opening march that becomes a recurring, unifying idea for the whole symphony can be heard as affirmative and stirring. But there is in its solemn, measured tread a dark undercurrent. Even when that march reaches its grandest flowering at the very end of the piece, it sounds not so much a triumph as the last, stiff-upper-lip hurrah of a vanishing era.

For the first, wildly cheering audiences in 1908, such negative thoughts probably did not occur. They were just so elated that, at long last, a Briton had written a symphony worthy of being placed alongside those of Beethoven and Brahms. For a few years, Elgar's First enjoyed that cachet, but it soon slipped, unjustifiably, into the backroom of the repertoire.

Judd reaffirmed the score's worth in an interpretation that had emotional breadth, rhythmic flexibility and architectural unity. He made sure that even when the picture thickened with counterpoint and thematic development, the logic of Elgar's vision could be savored. The Adagio movement, one of the most sublime peaks in all of English music, was shaped with particular eloquence.

The BSO maintained admirable technical discipline and produced a rich, but never muddy, sound, with particularly gorgeous contributions from the strings and woodwinds. A radiant performance.


When: 3 p.m. tomorrow

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $30 to $81

Box office: 410-783-8000

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