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Even for Beethoven, four hours is a lot


Beethoven's 1808 Akademie (or concert) was more than four hours long. Never mind that it introduced such masterpieces as the Fifth and Sixth ("Pastoral") symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Mass in C. "Even by the generous standards of 1808," as Michael Steinberg notes in a superb essay written for the Baltimore Symphony's recreation of the event yesterday in Meyerhoff Hall, "this Akademie of Beethoven's was monstrous [in its length]."

It is still long. Even though yesterday's event was the occasion for the orchestra's annual pension-fund concert, and loyalty to the players bid me stay, endurance failed me. I departed from Meyerhoff at the point when I had heard the orchestra and guest conductor Alan Gilbert perform the works that illness had forced me to miss a few days earlier on the regular Thursday-Friday subscription program: the "Pastoral" Symphony," the concert aria, "Ah! perfido" (with soprano Bridgett Hooks) and the Fourth Concerto (with pianist Lars Vogt).

The way Gilbert conducted an all-Beethoven program with the orchestra two weeks ago was impressive; his conducting was just as impressive on this occasion. If there is a conductor Gilbert's age -- he is about 30 -- who is more gifted, I haven't heard him.

He is still at the stage at which his youthful energy makes him a more successful interpreter of pieces like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony than of more relaxed works such as the "Pastoral." Gilbert currently seems more comfortable in the "Pastoral's" storm sequence than in the subsequent "Shepherds' Hymn" of the finale. But any conductor who can pace the first movement as briskly as he did, without imparting a sense of breathlessness, knows his stuff.

Last year at this time, Bridgett Hooks gave a gloriously rich and rounded account of Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs." Yesterday, she was equally fine in Beethoven's "Ah! perfido."

Her almost seamless voice is huge, warm, vibrant and remarkably well controlled -- and she uses it intelligently. I can't wait for this young woman to tackle Wagner's Isolde.

I admired the brightness and clarity of Lars Vogt's account of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto more than I liked it. Vogt is a thoughtful player and his performance of the slow movement -- subdued, subtle and penetrating -- riveted attention.

Elsewhere, I found his playing occasionally irritating. But if I was somewhat disturbed by his sense of detachment in the first movement and the rather flip manner in which he treated the third movement, Vogt kept my ears open and never bored me. In music this familiar, that's no small achievement.

Pub Date: 10/12/98

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