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12.4.05

Temirkanov's Mahler of Brass

When presenting her report cards to my grandparents, my mother always eagerly pointed out that the official language equivalent of the grade 4 (1 being the best, 6 an F) was, "Deserves neither praise nor reprimand." I doubt that that kept my grandparents from dishing out some tough encouragement, but it happens to be a great description of how I felt about the Baltimore Symphony's performance of Beethoven's 4th piano concerto last Saturday, April 9, at Strathmore Hall.

Under the baton of Yuri Temirkanov and with the Georgian Elisso Virsaladze on the Strathmore's 9-foot New York Steinway (the first outing of the instrument, since Kissin refused to play on it and had his own instrument sent down from New York last Wednesday), the concerto occupied the strange realm where nothing was particularly flawed or wrong but nothing overwhelming, either. It wasn't too glib, cold, or uninvolved. There were some really nice touches, some flawed trills. It was always enjoyable (the fact that the G major concerto is arguably the finest piano concerto ever written helps, I am sure) but not in a way that made me gush.

Strathmore's tendency to emphasize the bass notes, rich and sonorous sounding it is, was evident and a good deal too much in the Beethoven. Where I was sitting a little bit further back than usual (perhaps some 40 feet from the stage), the low buzzing and rumbling muddied other orchestral parts at times. In the Mahler it sounded the same but was more fitting and added excitement. It makes me want to hear Shostakovich's 5th symphony at the Strathmore.

Mahler's 4th symphony is one of the more accessible symphonies of a composer I have learned to love like few others. The present flavors of Austria always tug on my heartstrings, though may not make as much sense to someone who grew up in Oregon or New Jersey. At the very least, since Bernstein has so effectively popularized Mahler in this country, however, his symphonies are played often and often well. The days in which German and Austrian orchestras had a distinctive idiomatic advantage over other orchestras may not be over altogether, but there are American orchestras that play Mahler as well as any other. Cleveland under Szell, Boston under Ozawa, and these days the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas are but three examples. What I have heard from the NSO in Mahler, even under the excellent Roberto Abbado, did not impress me. All the more surprising was it to me that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra produced such committed and pleasing performance of the 4th.

Mahler does not need to be perfect in order to please; he needs enthusiasm and energy. Barbirolli's recorded performances often speak to that. Not to compare the somewhat sloppy conducting of Temirkanov to Sir John's, but even as the Russian maestro waved and flapped about like a musical seal or a bored traffic cop, the BSO played with the requisite excitement to put—as Tim Page has put in his review of the Thursday performance in Baltimore—that smile on your face.

I am not a fan of the direction the BSO has taken since David Zinman left, but to Temirkanov's credit it must be said that the brass section, for which he is largely responsible, was quite outstanding. If criticism be found, it was in the lack of tightness of the performance, which could have used more definition. Even so, it was not as much a concern as in the aimless Beethoven, and a tender and yearning slow movement, not overly sentimental, made you forget that very quickly.

Soprano Twyla Robinson sang Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden amiably, though she did not impress particularly. Her pronunciation and diction were excellent, but she never soared above the orchestra.

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