The music of Richard Wagner took center stage at Thursday's Baltimore Symphony concert under the inspired direction of guest conductor Hermann Michael.
The performance of the Prelude and Liebestod from "Tristan und Isolde" was sensuous and still maintained the revolutionary character of the music's highly chromatic style.
The interpretation of maestro Michael balanced the music with Szell-like precision while allowing it to ebb and flow and evolve to each new episode. The woodwinds were positively erotic. Special bravos to Edward Palanker's marvelous delivery of the taxing bass clarinet solos.
The string choir responded beautifully to the sensuality of the score, and the brass were able to play with tenderness and power. This music premiered in 1859, but performances like this keep it fresh and still provocative in our own century.
The central work in the program was the U.S. premiere of the Symphony No. 3 of Otto Ketting. The 5-year-old score is a relative infantnext to the Wagner, but it also calls for a huge orchestra and involves giant demands of every player and every section. The Baltimore Symphony gave its all.
If only the music was equal to the heroic efforts of the BSO. Unfortunately, Mr. Ketting really doesn't seem to be saying anything in particular, and when he does, he quotes Wagner's "Tristan."
The real letdown was the bland performance of the "Emperor" Concerto by guest soloist Andre Watts. The Baltimore Symphony and Mr. Michael were model Beethovians, giving Mr. Watts a glorious musical landscape in which to place his solo efforts. But Mr. Watts' heavy pedaling made nonsense of the clarity of Beethoven's conception, and the cadenza-like flourishes that open the concerto were simply sloppy. Mr. Watts does have plenty of technique, but it seems to be serving only itself and not the spirit of the composer.
The heavenly second movement was actually very touching. All the woodwind solos were splendid, and the strings were pure velvet. The finale, however, simply did not have the needed sense of joy and triumph. Beethoven should never be taken for granted, and this performance was asleep at the wheel.