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March 27, 2009

Tortelier makes welcome return to BSO podium; Repin is slow-to-burn violin soloist

This was supposed to be the week that Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director emeritus Yuri Temirkanov returned to conduct, something many of us had been anticipating eagerly. For reasons unexplained, he canceled some weeks ago, at the same time canceling appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Boston Symphony. Given his track record of unreliability (these were hardly his first cancellations over the past five years or so), it's not likely that Temirkanov will stand in front of any American orchestra again, not even our BSO, which found its musical soul during his tenure here. Very strange and sad. (He may be back on these shores with his ever-touring St. Petersburg Philharmonic, of course.)

Temirkanov's place is being taken for this week's concerts by Yan Pascal Tortelier, one of the BSO's frequent and best guest conductors. He kept Temirkanov's original program of Prokofiev's Fifth and the Brahms Violin Concerto, the latter with the original soloist, Vadim Repin.

On Thursday night at Strathmore, the finest results came in that Prokofiev work. No, Tortelier did not summon the level of intensity and power that Temirkanov could unleash in this score (just about all Russian fare, needless to say). Tortelier tended to make the music sound a little too neat and polite, even in the sardonic Scherzo. I wanted an earthier growl and a grittier edge at times -- a more visceral impact overall.

That said, Tortelier's grip on the symphony was admirably firm, and he offered a good deal of rhythmic snap in the work's most aggressive passages, considerable sensitivity in the darker, reflective moments. The orchestra responded strongly, with particularly warm and cohesive sounds from the strings and colorful flourishes from the brass.

The performance of the Brahms Concerto was surprising. For one thing, the inevitably unflappable Repin seemed almost too detached for his own good, keeping a certain distance from the heart of the richly lyrical music. He wasn't entirely at his technical best, either, although an off night from Repin is still mighty impressive. The sweetness in his tone was often exquisite, as was the poetic shading he achieved in the dreamiest portions of the first movement and throughout the second. And it was fascinating to hear the Jascha Heifetz cadenza in the opening movement, rather than the one by Joseph Joachim traditionally played; Repin made a telling case for it.

The remarkably slow tempo in that first movement was, presumably, the violinist's preference. I wouldn't have minded at all (you know my motto: nothing can be played too fast or too slow), except that there was so little energy underneath the surface that the expansiveness threatened the concerto's structural integrity.

Tortelier coaxed some lovely playing from the orchestra. Still, the synergy between soloist and ensemble could have been tighter in places. My guess is that the concerts over the weekend will find everyone more smoothly settled onto the same wavelength.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:39 PM | | Comments (2)


On Friday night Repin played the Brahms with total commitment and
virtuosity. I do not remember hearing a performance to equal his. I realized that this concerto needs a power violinist like Repin or Oistrakh to bring it off. Paler versions such as Bell's or
Hahn's miss the essence of the work. Truth to tell, I was looking forward to the Prokofiev rather than the Brahms.
I've heard too many performances that
fall short.
Repin had the power and energy and
dynamics to cut through the orchestra in the first and third movements and extraordinary tonal color in the second - and all the movements. I've never heard a performance with such a range of color.
Thanks for mentioning that Repin used the Heifetz cadenza - it's very different from the Joachim one.
Repin uses very little vibrato and this seemed right for the Brahms concerto.
Many people at the Friday concert hadn't got the word that Temirkanov had cancelled. The ticket, of course, still had his name. Sad that he didn't show up (again). The Prokoviev would have had an extraordinary performance - an ordinary one won't do with this work. Four or five people simply walked out during the final movements.
Thanks, Tim for your superb reviews.
You hear so much more than the rest of us.

Thanks very much for your report on Friday's performance (and for the kind words about moi). I'm glad to hear that the concerto went so well. I've always liked Repin very much, and I just knew that he could do better than Thursday's effort.TIM

The disconnect you alluded to between the BSO and Repin was in evidence at the Saturday evening Meyerhoff concert, as well. But we thought it was due to Repin's dissatisfaction with the orchestra accompaniment. Maybe not, based on what you wrote about Thursday.

The Saturday night Prokofiev performance, however, was absolutely thrilling. Tortelier DID summon "the intensity and visceral power" anticipated in a Temirkanov performance. Even he and the orchestra seemed to be aware that they had created a reading that sent the audience out into the night with memorable music ringing in its ear.

Thanks very much for the report on Saturday. I'm glad the results were so satisfying in the Prokofiev piece. Believe me, there was a lot to enjoy on Thursday. I just missed the extra something that I recall from Temirkanov. But Tortelier is a very impressive musician and it's clear that he enjoys a strong rapport with the BSO.TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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