Markus Stenz makes BSO debut in concert influenced by early music movement

October 5, 2012

The historically informed performance movement continues to have an impact on mainstream orchestral ensembles. For a time, conductors shied away from that territory, often leaving baroque and early classical music to the early music specialists. As the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra showed in its program at Strathmore on Thursday night, application of the lessons of the movement can help reclaim that repertory for modern instruments, with gratifying results.

German conductor Markus Stenz, in a noteworthy debut with Marin Alsop’s orchestra members, led a chamber-size group in the “Chaos” introduction to Jean-Fery Rebel’s choreographed symphony “Les elemens,” from 1737. In an early flirtation with atonality, Rebel depicted the formlessness of the world before its creation by using all the notes of the D harmonic minor scale simultaneously. Two piccolo players, set perilously high, chirped away in intertwined lines against a cushion of crisply coordinated strings.

Stenz’s reading of Beethoven’s Third Symphony offered brisk tempo choices, minimal rubato to interrupt the rhythmic flow, and scrupulous, spirited articulations. In an interesting experiment, Stenz split the violins, cellos and basses on opposing sides of the seating arrangement and kept string vibrato to a minimum. Combined with his slightly erratic beat, this caused some minor misalignment between sections but helped keep the strings subdued and allowed other instruments to come to the fore.

Beethoven’s example served only to reveal the weaknesses of the work that preceded it, Schumann’s late Violin Concerto in D Minor, especially its monochromatic orchestration — rarely one of Schumann’s strengths. Violinist Kolja Blacher gave a journeymanlike performance of the solo part, with a brawny, somewhat unvaried sound on his 1730 Tritton Stradivari. Stenz helpfully accommodated some tempo adjustments for the most difficult passages in the polonaise third movement.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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