Things might be terribly testy at the highest governmental levels, but there was a perfectly cordial Russian-American relationship going on here over the weekend.
Moscow-born Dima Slobodeniouk was on the podium of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to conduct one of the best-loved works by Russia's most celebrated composer, Tchaikovsky. The program also offered the BSO's first performance of a striking piece by another Russian, Stravinsky (he became an American citizen, so both sides can claim him).
There was room, too, for some Beethoven in this concert, which, on Friday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, sometimes sounded unsettled — moments of intonation slippage and fuzzy coordination; an occasional out-and-out blooper. But there were rewards throughout.
It was great to hear Stravinsky's "Symphonies of Wind Instruments" (the title refers to the original meaning of "symphony" to indicate a sounding together). Slobodeniouk kept things flowing tautly and drew mostly supple, nuanced playing from the woodwinds and brass.
The score, which started as a memorial to Debussy in 1920, was revised in 1947, the version used here. Stravinsky described the piece as "austere," and it is. But it's filled with extraordinary ideas that, in the space of about 9 minutes, create a fascinating sound-scape of shifting rhythms and spicy harmonies, leading to an enigmatic close.
An enigmatic close is also the most distinctive aspect of Tchaikovsky's final symphony, which premiered a little more than a week before his death.
Subtitled "Pathetique," Symphony No. 6 seems to sum up all the composer's neuroses and passions, while also demonstrating his audacious side. The piece refuses to play by the symphonic rules of his day. Each movement upends conventions; the last one ends on a slow fade suggesting the ultimate descent into the unknown.
It certainly is possible to overdo the "Pathetique" interpretively (though I willingly submit to such approaches). Slobodeniouk took a more controlled, dry-eyed route, adopting tempos that tended to stay within tight parameters. The big, surging themes still communicated, but with a certain detachment.
When keeping one's distance from the music, emotionally speaking, it's easier, of course, to focus on Tchaikovsky's ingenuity and craftsmanship, not to mention the riches of his orchestration. Occasional smudges aside, the BSO delivered that richness. The strings summoned considerable tonal warmth; the brass beautifully intoned the haunting chorale in the finale.
Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 provided a good vehicle for the BSO debut of British pianist Paul Lewis. His crystalline touch produced particularly impressive tone coloring in the cadenzas. Gentler dynamics would have been welcome in the Andante, but Lewis made telling poetry out of the music. The concluding Rondo sparkled nicely, although there was some tentativeness along the way. The BSO generally held form.