Baltimore Symphony focuses on Russian repertoire with Marin Alsop, Kirill Gerstein
In the years since Yuri Temirkanov stepped down as music director of the Baltimore Symphony, the orchestra has dipped sparingly into the Russian repertoire he favored and achieved so many memorable performances with during his tenure.
His successor, Marin Alsop, understandably thought it a good idea to re-balance the programs. This season, though, she clearly threw the gate wide open again, and the likes of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff came bounding back into the picture in a big way.
The latest program, which repeats in full on Sunday, finds Alsop addressing one of Temirkanov's specialties, the gripping Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich. Two Rachmaninoff items fill out the concert.
The Shostakovich work will also be the focus of Alsop's "Off the Cuff" presentation Friday at Strathmore and Saturday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall -- a discussion of the symphony's turbulent history will be followed by a complete performance of the score at these concerts.
On Thursday night at Meyerhoff, the BSO did not always sound totally settled into the groove. There was occasional roughness of articulation and loss of tone quality, both within sections of the ensemble and from several solo players. Still, there was enough expressive fuel to generate an absorbing experience.
The opening Rachmaninoff half of the evening got off to a
Rachmaninoff's four piano concertos are all exciting and imaginative, but the public only clamors for No. 2 and No. 3 (the Second is on a BSO program next month). So it was all the more enjoyable to find No. 1 on this program. Reminiscent of Grieg's Piano Concerto in structure and mood, Rachmaninoff's First packs in a lot of melodic and coloristic material; a bold energy bubbles all the while beneath the surface.
The BSO was fortunate to have as soloist the exceptionally accomplished Kirill Gerstein. Winner of the 2010 Gilmore Artist Award (this non-competition honor has become one of the most prestigious in the piano field), Gerstein has just what it takes to unleash the richness of Rachmaninoff's music -- rock-solid technique, prismatic tone, impeccable taste.
Without the slightest ostentation (no pointlessly fluttering hands, no facial mugging), the Russian pianist simply played the heck out of the challenging work. And without a trace of sentimentality, he also tapped persuasively and elegantly into the music's lyrical vein. Alsop dovetailed the orchestral side of things neatly.
Shostakovich's Fifth, which the composer supposedly wrote to win back favor of Soviet authorities angered by his modernist tendencies, has come to be seen by many as a defiant, even wonderfully subversive gesture. Whatever subtext is at work, it's a masterpiece of form and content, providing an emotional journey of Mahler-like depth (and, quite often, Mahler-like idioms).
Some Russian conductors -- Temirkanov, especially Rostropovich -- have been known to create an almost unbearable intensity and deeply personal feeling with this symphony. Alsop, conducting from memory, took a somewhat more detached approach. But, once past a blandly shaped first movement, she gradually and effectively turned up the heat.
Through it all, she kept the score's architecture clear and telling. The Largo movement emerged with particular sensitivity; the finale was given a bold, un-hurried sweep that allowed the music's undercurrent of anxiety to be strongly felt. Though not quite at the peak of its game, the BSO did some impressive work. Phil Munds' gleaming horn solos proved particularly satisfying.
PHOTO OF KIRILL GERSTEIN (by Sasha Gusov) COURTESY OF BSO