Monday, January 28, 2008

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Out of a notorious anti-Semitism that threaded its way through prolific writing, Richard Wagner attacked the music of Felix Mendelssohn, calling it lightly etched and elfin. These fey if diverting sounds, claimed Wagner, failed to wrestle with profound questions and stir the soul.

It is a tag that has sadly stuck to Mendelssohn. Yet on Saturday evening at Meyerhoff Hall, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed his brooding Third Symphony, known as the "Scotch," which came off as forceful and dramatic as heaven-storming Beethoven, pathos-laden Mahler and, yes, mystical Wagner.

An 1829 trip to Scotland, including a visit to Holyrood Castle (where Mary, Queen of Scots, reigned), originally inspired the composer, and the tumultuous four movements evoke the nation's sorry past and craggy landscapes. Hans Graf, the Houston Symphony's music director, was the guest conductor in the BSO's tempestuous reading, and in each of the four movements he pieced all the details into a sweeping whole. The first movement, in which low cellos and basses counter-controlled string figures, was somber, while the sunnier second was relentlessly driving. The dirgelike moments of the third movement took over from the more lyrical passages, and the fist-shaking forth movement was an emphatic effusion of glowering color.

As if to underline the storminess of the Mendelssohn, Graf and the BSO started with lighter fare in the first half. Mozart's rarely heard Symphony No. 34 emerged as a wonderfully crafted delight. Off-beat syncopations and jazzy inflections infused Ravel's Piano Concerto in G; Kirill Gerstein, a 28-year-old Russian, was the superb soloist.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Axelrod Quartet

Playing one of the most prized instruments in the world at the Renwick Gallery on Saturday night, James F. Dunham gave an audition.

As the Axelrod Quartet searches for a new violist, three musicians from top ensembles have filled the slot for performances of Haydn, Beethoven and Britten. Part of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society, the Axelrod Quartet plays on the Smithsonian Institution's instruments created in the 17th century by Nicol¿ Amati, who may have taught Antonio Stradivari.

Dunham rose to the challenge, reveling in the rich sound of the viola (both round and focused, with a golden timbre). He took the lead where necessary, as though he had been a longtime member.

Britten's Second String Quartet showed the ensemble at its best. A sea storm of meandering harmonies and obsessive repeated figures, the piece threatens sensory overload with its battery of drones, plucks and elegiac melodies, and disarms with austere long tones. The group played with fervor and tenacity but maintained an unsentimental approach. The contemporary work generally suited the antique instruments -- it pays homage to baroque composer Henry Purcell -- but as first violinist Marc Destrub¿ sustained harmonics, the pitches warped.

Overall, the quartet was uneven, with Dunham and cellist Kenneth Slowik consistently playing strongly, second violinist Marilyn McDonald never detracting from the group, and Destrub¿ clearly having an off night. They still managed to forge an emotionally engaging rendition of Beethoven's "Razumovsky" Quartet Op. 59, No. 2. Conversely, Haydn's Op. 55, No. 3, sounded murky and underrehearsed, lacking the sprightly elegance it required.

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