It was a tale of two debuts. On Saturday night, French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and German conductor Johannes Debus made their first appearances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore. The program of Rossini, Beethoven and Brahms in itself was nothing remarkable. But the standard-repertory evening offered a canvas for a sometimes uneasy and often fascinating clash of artistic temperaments from the debutants.
To open, Debus led a taut account of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” Overture that summed up the conductor’s musical approach. Aside from some bobbles in the horns, the playing was crisp and energetic, with shapely lines and muscular interjections. Yet Debus’s tight grip on the reins left an overall impression that was square and somewhat faceless.
Debus’s earnestness sat uneasily next to Bavouzet’s more mercurial take on Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, an early work enlivened by the composer’s characteristic wit. At the keyboard, Bavouzet exuded a relaxed, confident musicianship and offered a reading full of telling inflections and slyly subversive touches. The Frenchman reveled in the radical disjunctions of Beethoven’s first-movement cadenza and brought time to a seeming standstill with his gorgeously phrased slow-movement coda.
Yet Bavouzet’s incisive and nimble lines were set against an orchestral backdrop that was unfashionably heavy and rigid. Only in Beethoven’s ebullient finale, with its playful rhythms and vigorous accents, did conductor and soloist finally arrive on the same musical page.
Without a quicksilver soloist to contend with, Debus put his undeniable stamp on Brahms’s First Symphony. The bracingly swift and arresting opening proved a harbinger of what was to come: a tightly coiled reading shaped by admirably clear if unyieldingly linear ideas. Refreshingly, Debus’s brisk pacing did not come at the expense of orchestral weight, thanks to the BSO’s full-textured strings. But the conductor’s steadfast refusal to linger robbed key moments of grandeur, most crucially the magical lead-in to the finale’s main theme and the climactic brass chorale. In the end, it was neither the best of Brahms interpretations nor the worst but seemed to please the clap-happy audience.