Christopher Thomas and Len Mullenger in Birmingham.
It is a great shame that Symphony Hall
only appeared a little over half-full for this Sunday evening all Brahms
concert, for the Baltimore Symphony treated us to a programme
that immediately captured attention in the care, thoughtfulness and
attention to detail of their performance.
Yuri Temirkanov has just entered
his second season as the Baltimore’s Music Director. He conducted the
entire programme without a baton, cutting an elegant, dapper figure,
a man of modest gesture never prone to over statement or dramatic effect
in his technique. That said, the rapt response he received from the
players of the Baltimore Symphony communicated itself immediately in
the opening Academic Festival Overture. There was a sense of
infectious spirit in the playing here that was not always as evident
later in the concert, with some delightfully delicate wind playing and
a finely balanced, warm sounding string section. With the exception
of a couple of moments of slight uncertainty in the ensemble, the orchestra
gave an indication of the carefully contoured phrasing and finely graded
textures that were to mark the performance of the Symphony No. 2
in the second half.
I suspect that the name of Nikolaj
Znaider would have been new to many people in the audience. I also
have a strong hunch that after this performance of the Brahms Concerto
he will have made himself many new friends, as much for his on stage
personality and extraordinary response to a crisis in the finale as
for his playing. After a deftly handled orchestral introduction, Znaider’s
first entry amply demonstrated the charisma evident in his playing as
well as in his presence. Back arched, the physical commitment and integrity
of his playing impressed immediately. Where doubts surfaced to my ears
were in his tone. In the rhapsodic, lyrical material that Brahms so
magically weaves into the more dramatic passages of the movement Znaider
made his 1732 Guarneri sing with a sound of sweet, crystal clear purity.
In his lower register however, coupled with the more muscular passages,
I felt a lack of depth to his tone inhibited the overall effect of the
performance, this despite the heart and soul that was clearly going
into his playing. In the central adagio, this was not a concern and
I found myself enthralled as, clearly, were the audience, at the beauty
and sensitivity of his playing allied with the meticulously handled
orchestral accompaniment (the gorgeous opening oboe solo was particularly
memorable). The final movement was overshadowed somewhat by a broken
string around two minutes in. After an initial audible exclamation from
the soloist he calmly turned to the leader, swapped instruments and
carried on playing, unfazed, as the leader fitted a new string before
swapping instruments back a couple of minutes later. Incredibly, the
incident had little effect on Znaider who proceeded to bring the concerto
to an exciting conclusion followed by numerous embraces with both Temirkanov
and the leader. I attended this concert with high expectations of Znaider,
who, at twenty-five years of age, has a strong musical personality.
He may have some way to go yet before he reaches full maturity but I
suspect we will hear much more of him.
The symphony almost felt like an anti-climax
after the drama of the concerto but it soon became clear that the playing
was to reflect the same careful preparation that had characterised the
playing in both the overture and concerto. I would emphasise the word
careful here as the unquestionable beauty of phrasing and delicately
balanced sounds may, for some, have got in the way of the spirit of
the music, particularly in the finale, which did not quite blaze as
I would have liked it to. There was plenty to enjoy however, the charmingly
poignant concluding coda of the first movement, the "autumnal glow"
(to quote Janet E. Bedell ‘s programme note) of the Baltimore’s sound,
always refined and never forced and the grace and rhythmic nuances of
the intermezzo. Much of the solo playing was delightfully done
and despite the restraint of the performance it left a warm feeling
on an otherwise cold November night. Curiously, though I left Symphony
Hall with the impression that I may have felt rather differently about
the orchestra had they been giving an all-twentieth century programme.
Marc Bridle in London.
This was a very sparsely attended concert,
no doubt due to the programme of all Brahms. It also left something
of a mixed impression for this reviewer.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra are
near the top flight of American orchestras yet they lack the definition
of character in their playing which makes hearing the Cleveland or New
York Philharmonic such a riveting experience. The string sound is bold
(at least to the right of the orchestra), although I found the violins
somewhat emaciated in tone during the opening overture (a plain, non-fussy
performance). Pitch was not always perfect, and there is a steely bite
to the upper strings which, even given the improved acoustics of the
Barbican, didn’t quite project sufficient sonority for those sat at
the back of the stalls.
Sayaka Shoji was the London replacement
for the indisposed Pamela Frank in Brahms’ Violin Concerto. I never
tire of hearing this work, but did during this performance. Shoji, just
18 years of age, has a fine (but only fine) technique but was, frankly,
unwise to have chosen this concerto to play. The Brahms (in some ways
the cruellest of the great concertos for a soloist) requires both stamina
and an innate ability to enter into artistic dialogue with the orchestra,
and Shoji was short on both. Her very first entry, on an open D string
ascending towards a high F, lacked security and the octave leaps during
the first movement’s development were poorly articulated (more to do
with her small finger span than any inability to hit the notes). However,
matters improved significantly during the second movement when her tone
appeared more expressive (although both she and the Baltimore’s oboist
appeared a world apart in communicating with each other). The finale
had drive, but lacked authentic gypsy feel, even if she had by this
time mastered the double stops and trills which litter the movement.
The performance of Brahms’ Second Symphony
started with a laboured gait, and only really sprung into action during
the blazing finale of the Allegro con spirito. However, the orchestral
playing picked up markedly – indeed, the growling cellos were truly
world class, their phrasing and colour beguiling. Temirkanov, the unshowiest
of conductors, coaxed an organic performance out of the Baltimore players
which at last made this orchestra worth hearing.
I hope that the Baltimore will return
to London in the future – this time however with a much more enticing
programme. It was unfortunate, that in London of all places on their
tour, they seemed unwilling to play a major American work.