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Kraggerud to the Rescue

Grieg's Holberg Suite, Mozart's 5th violin concerto, and Beethoven's 1st symphony were the parts of a rather standard program of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore this Thursday. (Only, of course, that the Beethoven is so standard, you hardly hear it in the concert halls anymore.) The BSO-member introduction speech before the Grieg was mercifully short this time... one improvement over the last concert. The pleasant, friendly, and always gorgeous anachronism of Grieg, his Suite Aus Holbergs Zeit had just been heard a few weeks before, then with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (read Ionarts review here)—and they did better, even without a conductor. This time, there were no glaring mistakes or flaws (apart from one exception to be mentioned), either, but the violas and celli were muddled and the BSO strings were not tuned well.

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C.Sinding / J.Sibelius, Violin Concertos,
H.Kraggerud / Bjarte Engeset / Bournemouth SO

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E.Grieg, Violin Sonatas no. 1–3,
H.Kraggerud, H.Kjekshus

Kwamé Ryan—conductor of several world premieres of operas by Eötvöo and Pintcher—led with highly visible enthusiasm and devotion, expressing every emotional nook and cranny of the work (there are many) with his body, eyes, hand—much to the amusement of (most of) the audience. Jonathan Carney, the first violinist of the BSO who usually distinguishes himself through his chair-hopping antics, delivered the worst (out of tune and sloppy) violin solo I have heard in a professional setting.

Then came the young Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud (a very unfortunate picture of whom had been used in the program). Ionarts has heard him before: in Brahms at the National Gallery of Art, where he and his collaborator Helge Kjekshus gave a very intelligent and pleasing performance (Ionarts review here).

In the infinitely better acoustic of Strathmore Hall, he had far more opportunity to show off his specific tone. Throughout the Mozart Kraggerud's playing was on the fast side, which is nothing new if you know his recordings of Grieg or Brahms on Naxos. His tone was on the thin side, but very clear, almost sharp (I did not hear "sweetness" in his or his violin's tone, as other attendees claimed), like a needle through leather. It reminded me of a smaller Nathan Milstein variant with silvery touches. His instrument, Ole Bull's old fiddle, only contributed to this effect. Beautiful, yet everything but warm, tending rather toward a boxy, hollow sound.

Kraggerud displayed moving and elegant playing in the Adagio, without giving up the fresh touch he brings to seemingly everything he plays. Hearing him in concert, one finds it no surprise that he will play a Carnegie concert with his compatriout Leif Ove Andsnes later this month. The band behind him, meanwhile, was fine, but not special. Little to no sparkle in the Mozart, but some heft. There was no blaming Maestro Ryan, though: Mozart is awfully difficult to do really well and the BSO probably not used to it after years of Termirkanov. Meanwhile, the heavy plodding in the background made for a vivid and exciting contrast with the vigorous and energetic Kraggerud up front. At times he even seemed to want to push the truncated BSO on a bit.

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Norwegian Violin Favorites,
Kjekshus / Kraggerud

Johann Svenson's Romance (found on Kraggerud's Naxos disc of Norwegian favorites) was the Norwegian-flavored encore to celebrate 100 years of Norwegian independence. The audience loved this piece and the playing: both were beautiful and impressive in equal measure.

Beethoven's first symphony is still very much classical, with touches of Mozart, but not quite in the same class as the second and that "Greek maiden," the fourth. The BSO played on autopilot, and Maestro Ryan, visibly loving every bit of the work, conducted the audience as much or more than the players, upon whom his passionate gestures seemed to be lost since they did not look up from their notes. It may have been a bit routine, but not so pedestrian as to be less than enjoyable.

See also Joe Banno, From the BSO, a Sweet 'Holberg' Suite (Washington Post, May 7).