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Weekend whirlwind, round 1: Baltimore Symphony's Russian richness

It has been a whirlwind weekend of concerts so far for me. I'll post reports as quickly as I can, despite being ever so annoyingly  under the weather -- imagine someone of my stature catching something as dead common as a common cold. Here's the first round:

Folks who, somehow, didn't get their fill of Russian music during Yuri Temirkanov's years with the Baltimore Symphony can't go hungry these days. Turns out that Marin Alsop has quite a pronounced interest in that repertoire, too.

The latest example is her program this weekend, which offers two Prokofiev symphonies, No. 1 and No. 6, along with Rachmaninoff's golden Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It's a rich, rewarding combination. (If you haven't heard it, there's another performance Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff Hall.)

As I've noted before, the BSO sounds really fine these days. Alsop's emphasis on technical discipline has resulted in an ensemble that, time after time, sounds admirably cohesive and alert.

There's a lot to be said for polish and discipline, and those qualities shone brightly Friday night in the performance of Prokofiev's first symphony, the one called "Classical." The playing, especially by the violins, was wonderfully lithe; the whole orchestra exuded color as Alsop focused on the abundant character of the symphony, its whimsy, its buoyancy and, at least to my ears, what seems like a tinge of nostalgia.

Symphony No. 6 is from a whole different world of emotion. Because it has a finale containing a good deal of melodic drive, the score is sometimes considered ...

a cousin to the Haydn-esque-ness of No. 1. I don't buy that. The Sixth, imbued with the lingering pain of World War II, gives us a darker, deeper Prokofiev. There's irony and bitterness in this music. The finale, like that of Shostakovich's Fifth, is deceptively upbeat.

It's possible to draw out more of that inner conflict than came through on Friday, but this was still a sobering, absorbing performance that found the BSO operating in strong form and delivering considerable expressive weight. (The Prokofiev symphonies were to have been part of a recording project for Naxos, but I'm told the record company has had some second thoughts about live recordings of US orchestras -- something about rights. Anyway, there were no microphones Friday. Too bad.)

As for the Rachmaninoff chestnut, it received a most impressive performance. The soloist, Lukas Vondracek, produced a great deal of tone color at the piano and he phrased with a refreshing mix of poetry and panache.

I especially enjoyed his approach to the famous, ultra-lyrical 18th Variation. Instead of milking the big tune, Vondracek kept the music flowing naturally, but then lavished time and nuance on the quiet closing measures, creating a gorgeous, magical effect. His technique proved easily up to the bravura challenges elsewhere, and his classy, sparkling pianism was well-matched throughout by dynamic partnering from Alsop and the orchestra.

PHOTO (by Martina Cechova) COURTESY OF BSO

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