BSO finishes Schubert symphony, beautifully


May 15, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Whenever Mario Venzago conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, you can count on having a good time. This weekend's visit is no exception.

At a cursory glance, the program may seem unexceptional - two overtures by Rossini serving as bookends for Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and Schubert's Symphony No. 8, known as the Unfinished. Look more closely, and you'll discover something re-christened Schubert's Finished Symphony, an intriguing, conjectural completion of the beloved work that came down to us with only a first and second movement.

That novelty would make the lineup worth a listen by itself, but the well-worn concerto has an extra appeal, too, in the form of super-elegant soloist Leila Josefowicz. Even the Rossini items are far from ho-humsville. Semiramide is more often encountered on radio stations than in concert halls, and Il viaggio a Reims doesn't turn up much in either place. And the ever-buoyant Venzago is to the Rossini born.

I wasn't entirely convinced by the validity of the Schubert creation last night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, although the additional movements certainly resulted in a quintessential Schubertian quality that Schumann famously identified in the composer's Ninth Symphony - "heavenly length."

But Venzago's reasoning is sound. Schubert did leave behind a partial sketch for a third movement Scherzo; it has been recently reconstructed by Brian Newbould. And there is a large-scale movement from Schubert's ballet music, Rosamunde, that's in the same B minor key of the Unfinished's opening.

It's possible that this movement was originally intended to crown the symphony. Venzago tipped the scales in this finale's favor by inserting a haunting recollection of the first movement just before the end.

I think it would have been wiser to play the two absolutely authentic movements in their traditional order and then offer the other two. Instead, Venzago placed the Scherzo second, which, for me, interrupted the intense emotional bond between the original pair.

Still, the performance proved riveting, not only for its musicological interest, but because the conductor coaxed such a beautifully detailed, thoroughly committed performance from the BSO. The Andante, in particular, positively glowed; the hushed clarinet and oboe solos emerged as if in a bittersweet, beckoning dream.

There was also a lot of dreamy playing in the Mendelssohn concerto. Josefowicz produced a tone that was as admirable for its silken quality as for its unwavering accuracy. Her phrasing was a model of subtle passion in the first movement, lyrical refinement in the second, gentle humor in the last. Venzago ensured an equally sensitive sheen from the orchestra.

The Rossini curtain-raisers were given plenty of rhythmic snap and colorful character. Venzago's coaxed especially careful articulation of the composer's trademark crescendos. Vibrant contributions from the horns, woodwinds and percussion section provided the icing on each performance.


What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with violinist Leila Josefowicz

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 p.m. today; 3 p.m. tomorrow

Admission: $27-$75

Call: 410-783-8000

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