Pianist Eric Zuber

Pianist Eric Zuber (ericzuberpiano.com / March 25, 2013)

Last year, when Concert Artists of Baltimore planned the March program for its 2012-2013 season, the most interesting part was the repertoire -- an unusual pairing of Beethoven's Mass in C with Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 2. By the time that program arrived over the weekend, there was something a lot newsier about it.

The soloist in the concerto, Peabody grad Eric Zuber, was recently chosen to be one of 30 participants in the International Van Cliburn Competition that will be held in Fort Worth this June. That added to the expectations for his performance, expectations largely met Saturday night at Peabody's Friedberg Hall.

The Saint-Saens concerto veers wildly in mood and character, and calls for correspondingly varied tone colors from the pianist. Zuber, who counts among his teachers Leon Fleisher and Boris Slutsky, easily revealed the necessary technical chops. He maintained admirable clarity of articulation, even while tearing through the finale at a wonderful clip, and he summoned abundant drama for the concerto's opening homage to Bach.

I would have welcomed more tonal delicacy from the pianist here and there, especially in the scherzo, and a little more individualistic phrasing along the way. But Zuber's playing had impressive drive, and he enjoyed attentive support from the orchestra and conductor Edward Polochick. 

The inner energy of the Beethoven Mass emerged tellingly under Polochick's guidance, nowhere more so than in the fast and furious delivery of the fugue at the end of the Credo. The conductor also ensured that the most descriptive and reflective portions of the score registered, drawing cohesive singing from the chorus and generally tight work from the orchestra. The vocal soloists got the job done, but often sounded tentative.

There was nothing tentative about last week's performance by stellar Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky at the Kennedy Center. His recital for the Washington Performing Arts Society,  devoted to songs by Rachmaninoff and Sviridov, found the singer pouring out his familiar, rich tone and deeply communicative phrasing.

Yes, a few high notes were not firmly centered, and loud intakes of air could be distracting, but the sheer beauty of the singing easily swept aside reservations.

Hvorostovsky's breath control and eloquent sculpting of Rachmainoff's "In My Soul" was one extraordinary example of the vocal artistry; the operatic intensity achieved in the same composer's "I Am Waiting for you" was another.

Accompanist Ivari Ilja, an invaluable collaborator all evening, brought out the riches of the piano writing in the Rachmaninoff selections with great flair. 

Sviridov's "Petersburg," a cycle of nine songs written for Hvorostovsky in the 1990s, is a moody reflection on life, love and the Russian psyche (the poetry is by Blok). The melodically and rhythmically straightforward music is late-romantic in style, sometimes reminiscent of Mahler ("A Voice from the Chorus") and even Kurt Weill ("The Bride"). 

The baritone's efforts to silence applause between songs were, alas, fruitless, so the tension of the performance was broken a bit. Still, the cycle exerted a strong hold, thanks to the vivid expressiveness of the performers.

The baritone's hushed singing in "The Golden Oar," his rapt delivery of "The Breeze Has Brought from Far Away," and the amazing vocal and dramatic leap at the conclusion pf "I Am Nailed to a Tavern Counter" -- just a few of the memorable moments.

All of that heavy Russian angst got me even more in the mood for the BSO's powerful account of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 a couple nights later.