BSO remembers Temirkanov and Rachmaninoff, too

Classical Music Review


At nearly the last hour, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has found a way to offer the public an opportunity to own a permanent souvenir of its exceptional chemistry with outgoing music director Yuri Temirkanov. It doesn't come cheap, but it's worth the price.

A compact disc of Rachmaninoff's surging Symphony No. 2, recorded live in 2004, will go on sale tomorrow, available for a contribution of $100 or more to the orchestra's newly established Great Artists Fund. Since Temirkanov and the BSO made no commercial recordings during his six years at the helm, the release has instant significance. That it captures such incendiary music-making gives it considerable weight.

Temirkanov, who canceled four weeks of programs with the BSO in March, is still scheduled to be on the podium for a final three in late May / early June, finishing up with the same composition he started with in January 2000, Mahler's Resurrection Symphony.

Those recent cancellations, made after the death of a close Temirkanov friend, no doubt cut into some of the remarkable goodwill he enjoyed with the musicians earlier in this farewell season, especially during the orchestra's European tour last October. The no-shows probably hurt Temirkanov's standing with the public, too, given the unusual number of times he canceled the past few years (those occasions were health-related).

Some folks long ago dismissed him as an itinerant music director, more of a glorified guest conductor who didn't take the job or the community seriously enough. I assume that they just never noticed this man's uncommon artistry, or what he did to elevate the technical and -- if you'll pardon a loaded word -- spiritual qualities of the orchestra. Those qualities permeate this welcome recording.

Of course, it helps if you're open to the expansive beauty of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony. There are otherwise sensible music lovers who just can't go that far, finding in the piece a thick goo of overwrought, overlong, overly Russian emotion, an endless succession of belabored peaks and dull valleys. You have to pity such people. They do not know what they're missing.

Speaking of missing, this performance isn't note-complete. Unlike Temirkanov's 1994 RCA recording of the symphony with his other orchestra, the celebrated St. Petersburg Philharmonic, this one takes a few snippets out of the score, something I didn't notice when I heard him conduct the BSO in the work at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in September 2004.

For many years, it was common practice to perform nips and tucks on the piece, and the composer made things worse by seeming to condone such surgery during his lifetime. Since the 1970s, complete performances have become the norm, and several fine examples are preserved on disc, including a 1992 one by the BSO made with former music director David Zinman on Telarc.

Zinman also takes the first movement repeat, by the way. Temirkanov did on his St. Petersburg Philharmonic recording, but not his BSO performance.

As for the cuts, Temirkanov's certainly are seamless, and whatever may be lost in terms of notes is more than compensated for in the sheer commitment and force of the performance. Even in low-tide passages -- and the conductor is not afraid to slow down an extra degree to help savor more of a phrase's poetry -- the underlying pulse is strong, the architecture of the piece clear and solid.

This is a symphony about tension and release, expectation and fulfillment. Temirkanov makes each of these emotional rides compelling, starting with the first melodic buildup during the introduction section of the opening movement. Time and again, he gets lyrical mileage out of the music, as in the orchestra's alternately sighing and whirling motives that frame the songful violin solo later in that first movement.

The Scherzo gets an electric charge, with incisive articulation from the strings and some hot brass playing. The long-breathed Adagio, with melody after luminous melody, unfolds eloquently and reaches its climactic points in sumptuous fashion, thanks particularly to the burnished tone of the strings. I wish the clarinet solo had a little more warmth, but it's very sensitively outlined, as are solo efforts by other players in the movement.

Temirkanov neatly judges the finale's shifts between propulsive and reflective, allowing for considerable breadth along the way without losing the overall momentum. And the ensemble, operating on all cylinders, delivers Rachmaninoff's ultimate bursts of romantic fervor in consistently impressive form.

Just about everything that Temirkanov has brought to, and coaxed from, the orchestra can be savored on this recording. The chemistry between conductor and musicians is palpable, helping to explain, better than any words, the value of the past six years.

If you already appreciate Temirkanov's gifts and the extra layer of expressive soul that he gave the BSO, you'll want to add this documentation to your collection. If you think that the Temirkanov years here have been overrated, spending 51 minutes and 41 seconds with this recording just might change your tune.

The Temirkanov / BSO CD of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 is available for a contribution of $100 or more to the orchestra's Great Artists Fund. For more information, call 410-783-8124 or visit

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