Nicely timed for Valentine's Day weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is steeped in romantic thought.
You can't get more romantic than Wagner's four-hour opera in search of orgasmic, spiritual and harmonic resolution, Tristan und Isolde. The Prelude and Liebestod from that score, which open this program, condense all of that effort into 15 minutes of unparalleled musical ecstasy. Where Wagner celebrates human passions and ideals of love, the Symphony No. 5 by Sibelius declares a no less intense love of nature, all its mystery and majesty.
And Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, while pre-dating romanticism, has a justly famous slow movement that presages the kind of melancholy beauty that would haunt the works of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. (Thanks to its use in the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan, that movement also enjoys extra romantic associations.)
Last night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the BSO was sensitively guided through these pieces by British conductor Mark Wigglesworth, making a noteworthy debut with the orchestra. From the first, spaciously phrased measures of the Tristan Prelude, he connected deeply to the music's emotional truths. I wish he had applied a little more of that breadth to the very end of the Liebestod, but his interpretation was still remarkably satisfying.
Wigglesworth had the strings and woodwinds playing with impressive technical control and tonal beauty; there were exquisite nuances at the softest volume. The brass could have used similar delicacy early on, but quickly achieved refinement.
Another British guest, pianist Stephen Hough, in his first BSO appearance since 1996, proved to be equally important to the evening's success. One of the most consistently imaginative keyboard artists around, Hough sculpted the Mozart concerto with uncommon warmth, naturalness and prismatic coloring. His subtle inflections conveyed the myriad poetic impulses on and below the surface of the score; the cadenzas, in particular, were brilliantly realized. He enjoyed beautifully dovetailed support from conductor and orchestra throughout.
The Sibelius symphony, like Wagner's opera, achieves its impact by means of sustained tension and emphatic release. Wigglesworth made that progression seem more arresting than ever. Again, he lavished care on the gentlest elements in the music - the feathery string passages in the opening portion of the last movement were magically realized - and this doubled the potency of the work's explosive points, especially the startling closing chords. With few exceptions, the BSO was in shining, stirring form.
Like last month's memorable performances with guest conductors, this one reaffirmed the BSO's responsive, dynamic and reliable quality, a quality painstakingly honed for four years by music director Yuri Temirkanov. Even in his absence the past few months, his legacy has been heard loud and clear.
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: 8 tonight, 3 p.m. tomorrow
Tickets: $27 to $75