Out of at least a dozen worthwhile musical events over the weekend, I settled on two and felt well-rewarded. On Sunday evening, Arnaldo Cohen, filling in for an ailing Ivan Moravec, delivered a piano recital of uncommon intellectual depth and expressive power for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. The night before, Hajime Teri Murai effectively guided the Peabody Symphony Orchestra and a supplement of vocal forces through Mahler's daunting Symphony No. 3 at Friedberg Hall.
Anyone who dares to start a recital with music by Arnold Schoenberg gets my vote. Cohen chose the Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11, which find Schoenberg feeling his way toward the very edge of tonality and structure. It would be a few more years before he made it over that edge, but these pieces are so free with dissonance and form that they can still sound alien.
Cohen emphasized the remarkable bonds this music has with the romanticism of the previous century. He had the music singing, sighing and scampering so beautifully that Schoenberg's poetic impulses registered as deeply as his daring.
The Brazilian-born, London-based Cohen devoted the rest of the program to full-fledged romantics - Schumann and Chopin. In Schumann's Fantasy in C major, the pianist could have used more muscle and technical smoothness in a few places, more tenderness and breadth in a few others. But he delved into the fitful music's worries and reveries with a sure sense of momentum and drama.
Even more impressive were the imagination, security, rhythmic freedom and depth of phrasing Cohen brought to the complete Preludes by Chopin. Each individual item was crafted with telling detail - exquisitely controlled ebb and flow in the "Raindrop" Prelude, effortlessly graceful touches in the A-flat major Prelude, a wild surge in the G minor Prelude, to give a few examples - while the cumulative power of the whole was continually reinforced.
Cohen capped the evening with a sensational encore - his own deliciously souped-up version of Alfred Grunfeld's transcription of themes from Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus. The performance reaffirmed that Cohen has the chops and the instincts of a golden-age pianist.
On Saturday night, Murai, Peabody's director of orchestral activities, continued his annual Mahler cycle with the Symphony No. 3, a work that seeks answers to questions of existence by examining the forces of nature, the faces of humanity and the facets of divinity.
It's a long piece (it ran about 110 minutes here) and hard to hold together, but Murai successfully limned its overall arc, from subterranean rumblings at the start to a sublime ascent to the stars at the end. His elastic tempos paid off richly in the second and third movements; his unhurried, yet never draggy, pace caught the finale's eloquence and enveloping warmth.
The Peabody Symphony Orchestra revealed particular strength in the strings, which rose to the challenges of technique and tone, whether at full force or a whisper. Things were less even among the woodwinds and brass, but mostly admirable, while the percussion section held firm throughout. Rarely did the student status of the ensemble become evident.
Solos by concertmaster Elizabeth Mahler (no relation, as far as I know) and trumpeter Daniel Norris were especially poised and communicative.
The performance received a significant boost from Peabody grad student Elizabeth Healy, whose vibrant mezzo and thoughtful phrasing caught the mystery of the fourth movement tellingly. She also did shining work in the folksy fifth movement, which featured the polished women's voices of the Peabody Chamber and Concert Singers and, located in the balcony, the Children's Chorus of Maryland. (That movement ran off the tracks in the initial measures, but Murai got things under control quickly.)
For Mahler, to write a symphony meant "to construct a world." This performance caught much of that world's scope and impact.