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Alsop, BSO deliver explosive account of Shostakovich's Twelfth Symphony

An emperor and a dictator rule over the latest Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program, which turns out to be benevolent for us commoners who like noble music-making.

Friday night's concert at Meyerhoff Hall was one of the most riveting and unified the BSO has given in the past decade or more. The repeats Saturday and Sunday could get even hotter. 

Music director Marin Alsop has paired two meaty works to form something of an epic.

Beethoven's evergreen Piano Concerto No. 5 has such scope and presence that, long ago, it acquired the nickname "Emperor." Shostakovich's rarely encountered Symphony No. 12, subtitled "The Year 1917," represents what the composer described as his "effort to embody the mighty image of the greatest man of our most complex epoch" -- Lenin.

The Beethoven war horse was practically guaranteed a memorable account, given the choice of soloist. Sure enough, Yefim Bronfman, one of few true keyboard titans of the day, offered a rich combination of technical mastery, interpretive insight and an air of spontaneity.

For the drama in the outer movements, the pianist hardly moved a muscle, yet summoned massive waves of sonic power. And in the serene Adagio, Bronfman's pearly articulation and exquisitely nuanced phrasing produced a mesmerizing effect (I'm not exaggerating -- there was nary a cough or rustle in the hall).

With Alsop a firm partner on the podium and the orchestra offering polished, cohesive support, the performance underlined the concerto's imperial status.

The audience drew an encore from Bronfman -- a sparkling account of Chopin's F major Etude (Op. 10, No. 8), a la Horowitz.

The BSO has never played Shostakovich's Twelfth Symphony before this week. Its appearance now seems eerily appropriate, given the bloodshed from the revolution/counter-revolution spiral in Ukraine and the posture and behavior of a Russian president seemingly intent on being a new Lenin (or Stalin).

This 1961 symphony is hardly Shostakovich's most inspired work, though certainly not his least significant. It traces the volatile events of 1917 and Lenin's success with considerable pictorial skill, while also seeming to suggest, especially in the super-bombastic final moments, a hollow triumph.

Even if you put aside all Bolshevik allusions and inner meanings, the work makes one heck of a concerto for orchestra, equally spotlighting each section as Shostakovich puts a slithery motto theme through all sorts of development.

Alsop seemed galvanized by the roughly 40-minute score. She shaped it with great care, sensitive to its structural and emotional arc, its rich palette of instrumental colors. The result was a wonderfully tense and volatile performance.

The orchestra responded in virtuosic form, offering terrific clarity and discipline. More significantly, there was a wealth of expressive depth in the playing, from the mightiest brass outburst to the subtlest vibration of a gong.

The evening's only sour note: Latecomers. A pack of them was allowed to interrupted the row I was in a few measures into the Beethoven concerto, another batch a few measures into Bronfman's encore. What were the ushers thinking?

The concert repeats Saturday night at Strathmore, Sunday afternoon at Meyerhoff.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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