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Beethoven's 5th played the old-fashioned way


Old-fashioned beauty was the hallmark of the concert that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave last night in Meyerhoff Hall under guest conductor Gunther Herbig. This German-born musician, currently music director of the Toronto Symphony, favors an approach to music making that could not be more different than the BSO's own music diredtor, Davod Zinman.

For those put off by Zinman's "science fiction" approach to the Beethoven symphonies, Herbig's interpretation of the Symphony No. 5 must have been balm to the ears. There were none of Zinman's lightning-quick tempos, spare orchestral textures, banked brass and wind playing and crisply articulated lines. Instead, there was an approach that emphasized gravitas, ripe tonal beauty and smoothness of line. Herbig is a wonderful conductor, and his work -- always much appreciated by the BSO players -- was warmly received by the audience.

But this listener must confess that much as he admired the interpretation, he never became involved in it. The reason is probably too many years of listening to Zinman and to other conductors influenced by the authentic performance movement. Herbig's reading of the piece -- however beautiful -- sounded to these ears as if it were a late 19th-century transcription of the piece. It was an exercise in comfortable beauty rather than an explosion of incendiary vision. It was like looking at Victorian recreations of Greek art rather than the Attic originals.

With the pianist Jon Kimura Parker, Herbig also gave a splendid performance of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3. This was also an interpretation that had something ripely beautiful about it. Parker is a wonderful pianist who should be better known. This was big, unforced, utterly natural playing. If the interpretation did not have the fiery incisiveness of an Argerich or a Gutierrez, it had an almost sunny beauty that never became bland. Parker also did something that more soloists should do: he played an encore -- Chick Corea's "Got a Match" -- for his appreciative audience. When playing is as good as Parker's is, one wants to hear more -- and why not?

The concert began with Witold Lutoslawski's "Livre Pour Orchestre." This 1968 piece, which uses chance elements, is nevertheless a masterly exercise in construction and orchestration: Its wonderful textures and exciting rhythms build to an eloquently quiet conclusion. Herbig, as he did in everything else on his program, wrought an exquisite performance from the orchestra.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8:15 and Saturday at 11 a.m.

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