BSO Beautifully Powers Through a Weighty Russian Program

Vasily Petrenko stayed fresh, even through Shostakovich's daunting Eighth.
Vasily Petrenko stayed fresh, even through Shostakovich's daunting Eighth. (By Bill Allen)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 2009

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's program Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall was a whole lotta concert. Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto is the super-heavyweight of its class: a meaty slab of melody and fingerwork. And Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony is a long, wrenching journey through the wartime landscape of the soul.

Together, they represent a serious one-two punch. So do the young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko and the omnivorous British pianist Stephen Hough, winner of a MacArthur Foundation award.

The result was stunning -- even flattening.

It was an all-Russian evening, beginning with Liadov's tone poem "Kikimora," beloved of Russian orchestras, a rather substantial bonbon. It gave an initial sense of Petrenko's fluidity and ease, as well as his occasional disregard for detail: Entrances were a little unclean throughout the evening.

Hough brought enough detail and focus for everybody in a fascinating, unusual, well-thought and ultimately shattering performance of the Tchaikovsky. Unusual, certainly, was the opening, when the famous ascending chords so often hammered out of the keyboard with brute force seemed muted and oddly delicate, their craggy edges smoothed over. But this was only because Hough was leaving himself somewhere to go, and he went there, all the way.

This was "contemporary" Tchaikovsky: informed, that is, by the current revisionist trend-of-thought that there is a lot more substance to the composer than the mere sentiment and sugar so often ascribed to him. There is certainly nothing goopy about Hough's playing: slightly acidulous, if anything, and incisive. His fingerwork outlined strong shapes through a network of crosshatching, with the precision of a fine-tipped pen.

Petrenko, too, kept the orchestra direct, without stripping it of emotional force. The extra-slow start of the second movement allowed the flute's entrance to appear suspended in midair; later, the piano nibbled with gentle syncopations at the regularity of the beat. And in the third movement, the orchestra didn't gush over the romantic second theme, instead keeping it light and balletic.

It was all leading somewhere: The conclusion was a veritable tempest in which the roiling, demonic piano called forth such a storm surge of response from the orchestra as nearly to drown itself out before blasting to a finish. A thrilling performance.

And a hard act for Petrenko to follow. But the 32-year-old -- who has been attracting some attention as head of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic -- changed gears and kept power and freshness throughout the Eighth, focusing less, again, on technical detail than thoughtful expression.

This, too, was a revisionist reading. Shostakovich is commonly portrayed as a tragic, sardonic figure, but there was to his music here a sense of clean nobility -- with touches of the broad expanses of American symphonic music of the same period (the English horn solo at the end of the first movement was not merely sad but also hopeful). The martial burlesque so familiar in Shostakovich's music here appeared with less sourness than grace; and the intense outbursts of timpani became majestic openings of the heavens. This is a beautiful, bitter, tear-stained symphony: Petrenko made it feel heroic.

The program repeats tonight at the Meyerhoff.

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