It took the first two movements of Bach's Suite No. 4 for Unaccompanied Cello for Lynn Harrell to warm up on Thursday at his Library of Congress recital. The veteran cellist sounded out of sorts in this music, with effortful technique, missed notes and wayward pitch very uncharacteristic of his usual formidable playing standards.
But things turned around in the middle movements, and by the end of the work, Harrell's accustomed control was firmly in place. This wasn't the warm, romanticized Bach one might have predicted from this musician, despite the full vibrato he employed throughout. It was more of an objective view -- cleanly phrased and clear-headed, with just enough of the music's dance meters accented to give its phrases lift.
Beethoven's witty Variations on "Bei Mannern, Welche Liebe Fuhlen" from Mozart's "The Magic Flute" brought out more of Harrell's familiar, engaging warmth, along with throaty and resinous string tone. And in Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata -- originally written for an archaic form of bowed guitar, and very Beethoven-like in its bustling figures and mercurial shifts of mood -- there was a conspicuous lilt and sunniness to his phrasing.
After an emotionally guarded start to Stravinsky's own cello arrangement of his "Suite Italienne for Violin and Piano," Harrell and pianist Victor Santiago Asunción (a poised and imaginative partner throughout the evening) dug into the earthiness of the piece and made sure the melodic material soared.
-- Joe Banno
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
James MacMillan's music needs no introduction -- or at least it needs less than the composer-conductor gave it at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's concert at Strathmore on Thursday night. By spending six minutes introducing his five-minute-long "Stomp (With Fate and Elvira)," he led the audience to expect far thornier music than he actually wrote.
The piece, for full orchestra plus spoons and Celtic drum, is a lighthearted amalgam of the "Fate" motif from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, the gorgeous Andante from Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 (which was used memorably in the 1967 film "Elvira Madigan"), and a Celtic jig that eventually overpowers the "Fate" theme. MacMillan conducted with a sure hand, and the BSO handled the work's intricacies with apparent delight.
MacMillan next introduced his Piano Concerto No. 2, which uses only the orchestra's strings and often subsumes the piano into the ensemble. This does not make it easy to play: Pianist Rolf Hind had his hands full, as well as his elbows and, at one point, his palms, slapping the underside of the keyboard. Concertmaster Jonathan Carney was a major presence, too, handling Scottish tunes with folk-style playing as the piano rumbled accompanying figurations, so that Carney fiddled while Hind churned. Flitting waltz tunes and bits of the "Mad Scene" from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" appeared, too, in a work that was equal parts fun and desperation.
The evening's finale was Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 -- MacMillan felt compelled to introduce it, too -- in a bright, bustling but rather breathless performance, with more speed than nuance.
The concert will be repeated at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore at 8 tonight and 3 p.m. tomorrow.
-- Mark J. Estren