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A searing account of Shostakovich's Fifth from Marin Alsop and BSO

Pianist Boris Giltburg
Pianist Boris Giltburg (Sasha Gusov)

Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra served up a remarkably satisfying all-Russian program Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall, capped by a brilliant account of the mighty Shostakovich Fifth.

Conducting from memory, Alsop sculpted an intensely absorbing performance of the 1937 symphony, a work that saved the composer's career at a time when he and other artists were under suspicion by Soviet authorities.

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We may never know for sure what Shostakovich intended this work to convey, what he may have put into and, especially, behind the notes. But it is just about impossible not to hear in this searing music an indictment of the Stalin regime and an expression of what people endured during the darkest days of the 1930s.

Alsop tapped into that emotional vein from the opening measures and never lost sight of it. The intensity she generated as the first movement's themes were put through a frenzied development proved remarkably compelling. The conductor set a menacing gait for the scherzo, and, to great effect, took her time drawing out the Mahler-esque nostalgia and irony in the middle of that movement.

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In the Largo, the heart and soul of the symphony, Alsop offered spacious pacing, finely detailed phrasing and keen sensitivity to dynamic contrasts (the poignant pianissimo chords she drew from the strings spoke volumes).

I was surprised by Alsop's deliberate tempo at the onset of the finale, given her flair for lighting a rhythmic fire. A brisker, more bracing clip can certainly pay dividends here, but the conductor's approach affectingly underlined just how un-celebratory this superficially triumphant outburst is.

When she reached the emphatic coda, Alsop masterfully gauged each notch in the tension. Just when you thought things couldn't get more explosive, they did, and the final whomp had terrific impact.

All of this, of course, was possible because the BSO zeroed in on the conductor's wave length and stayed firmly tuned to it. Other than a touch of tonal thinness from the cellos in places, the strings had a very strong night, technically and expressively. Woodwinds offered beautifully nuanced playing. The brass came through with power to spare. Same for the percussion. Solo contributions were uniformly effective.

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Count this among Alsop's most personal and involving interpretations here, and among the BSO's most polished and communicative achievements of the past dozen or so years.

(The Fifth will be performed as part of the the symphonic play "Shostakovich: Notes for Stalin" Friday at Strathmore, Saturday at Meyerhoff. Thursday's program will be repeated only on Sunday at Strathmore.)

The evening's other big attraction was the BSO debut of Russian-born, Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg, who revealed a sterling technique and a great deal of musicality in Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1.

Glitburg produced a big tone that never turned brittle. Here and there, more dynamic nuance would have been welcome, but the phrasing was always alive with character, nowhere more so than in the first movement's mammoth cadenza. The pianist responded to the concerto's lyric side tellingly throughout. Alsop and the orchestra gave him vibrant support.

A hearty ovation brought Giltburg back for an encore -- Rachmaninoff's rich arrangement of Kreisler's "Liebesleid," delivered with delectable tonal warmth and feathery articulation. But the pianist let the often melodic line disappear amid the filigree and didn't go quite as far with rhythmic elasticity as this music can easily bear.

The evening opened with Tchaikovsky's "Slavonic March," a crowd-pleaser that doesn't get to please crowds all that often in concert halls these days, since so many sophisticates look down on such popular pieces. The rest of us are happy to revel in the score's infectious melodies, pulsating rhythms and colorful instrumentation.

Alsop kept the lid on the coda -- it calls out for a more breathless sprint to the finish line -- but otherwise gave the music a fun, fast ride that had the orchestra producing plenty of snap.

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