After a seven-week absence that began after the first week of the season, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director David Zinman returned to Meyerhoff Hall last night to conduct the BSO in an all-Russian program. After an atmospheric and delicately colored performance of Borodin's program-opening "In the Steppes of Central Asia," Zinman went on to demonstrate one of the strengths that sets him apart.
That strength is the much-underappreciated art of accompanying a soloist. Pianist Jeffrey Kahane's beautiful performance of Rachmaninov's First Concerto owed a significant debt to Zinman's considerate and sensitive accompaniment. The composer, who wrote the piece in 1891 and thoroughly revised it nearly 30 years later, was never able to understand why the First Concerto failed to equal the popularity of the Second or Third. One of the reasons is that the massively difficult solo part -- the first movement cadenza makes that of the Third Concerto seem relatively simple -- has to cut through rich instrumental textures that require both soloist and orchestra to execute hairpin turns at high velocity. The final movement -- which sounds much like the composer's "Symphonic Dances" -- is particularly difficult to negotiate.
Without sacrificing the clashing, --ing excitement of the orchestra during climaxes, Zinman was able not only to support Kahane but also match the ardor with which he interpreted this music.
Now in his late 30s, Kahane continues to be one of our most interesting pianists. He is a serious artist who phrases intelligently and who never plays a cheap note. He also has a most beautiful sound that is perfectly matched to his lyrical instincts. He set out the huge first movement cadenza strategically, building to an inevitable climax; his playing in the nocturnal slow movement could not have been lovelier; and his rocketing account of the final movement was filled with panache. There are plenty of pianists who play Rachmaninov more loudly than Kahane; very few play him as well.
The concert ended with a superb and fresh-sounding performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade." Another of Zinman's strengths is his sense of architecture. In a work like "Scheherazade," this means an ability to tell a story. The conductor characterized each episode carefully, yet maintained the sweep of the piece from the tranquil beginning to the thrusting finale with its magically quiet conclusion.
The conductor elicited generally beautiful playing from his musicians -- -- with blazing brass fanfares in the second and fourth movements and distinguished solo playing throughout, particularly in a beguiling account of the solo violin part by BSO concertmaster Herbert Greenberg.
Sometimes it's all too easy to take excellence for granted, and there's nothing like absence as a reminder of how good one has it. It's good to have Zinman back in Baltimore.