Mario Venzago leads Baltimore Symphony to peak with Bruckner; Nelson Freire delivers superb Beethoven
A very impressive ride the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has been having this season.
The playing, even with the occasional technical slip, seems to have hit a new level of consistency, while the expressive intensity and sense of total commitment has begun to rival that from the pinnacles of the brief Temirkanov era. The recent performance of Mahler's Ninth led by music director Marin Alsop is a case in point; last weekend's account of Bruckner's Third with Mario Venzago, returning to the BSO podium after a too-long absence, is another (I caught Sunday afternoon's performance at the Meyerhoff).
That this particular program also brought back superb keyboard artist Nelson Freire made the occasion all the more memorable. Freire moved with unassuming authority through Beethoven's Concerto No. 4, articulating with great clarity and abundant force as required, but it was his sublime nuances of tone and tempo that tinted the familiar music with a fresh beauty. Venzago and the orchestra backed the soloist attentively.
The audience recalled Freire to the stage enthusiastically enough to earn an encore, the bittersweet gem known as ...
the Melody by Gluck, a transcription of Dance of the Blessed Spirits from the opera Orfeo (I believe Freire played the Sgambati transcription). This used to be a favorite of venerable pianists from long ago, and Freire is just the kind of musician who can tap into the Old World style of singing phrases and subtle coloring that can make the piece so transfixing. (In case you missed it, or want to relive it, I've appended a YouTube video of Freire playing it, also as an encore after a concerto, two years ago. Bad sound quality, but a decent souvenir just the same.)
It was deeply satisfying to hear the BSO turn to Bruckner again; his symphonies could be played here often enough for me (you already suspected I was a little weird -- now you know for sure). Venzago chose the 1890 revision of the score, a major change from Bruckner's 1874 original. Bruckner fans debate the worthiness of each edition of a symphony; I was just happy to have his music in any form.
Venzago revealed a mastery of the Third's architecture, giving each building block, each striking spire, each quiet alcove its due. The charming side of the Third, with its lilting landler and polka references, particularly inspired the conductor, who could not resist dancing along at those moments.
The orchestra responded with terrific flair. There was great warmth from the strings, lots of color and suppleness in the woodwinds, considerable strength and brilliance from the brass, rock solid underlining from timpanist Dennis Kain. In short, a gripping performance.
By the way, I'm still even crazier about Mahler, and I would certainly love for the BSO to tackle all nine Mahler symphonies in a short span, the way the Staatskapelle Berlin is doing at Carnegie Hall, starting Wednesday and going through May 17, with Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim sharing the conducting. I think this would be a fab project for the BSO to tackle in 2011, the 100th anniversary of Mahler's death. That said, I'd be just as excited if the orchestra were to go completely nutty and have a Bruckner festival that gave us all that composer's symphonies -- maybe even more than one of the versions for the most heavily revised works. If such a dream were realized, I'd want Venzago to participate. He seems to get not just the technical side of Bruckner, but the heart and soul.
Now, here's that clip of Freire:
BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO