There was passion aplenty at Strathmore on Thursday evening as Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra offered two quintessential romantic masterpieces — Schumann’s “Rhenish” symphony and Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (with soloist Hélène Grimaud). Although I found both performances problematic, there was much to enjoy.
Schumann’s Third Symphony is a bracing rush of ideas and a highly individual statement. It’s a five-movement work (almost unheard of at the time) in which the movement titles are in German rather than the universal Italian (the first time Schumann did this); it employs a large brass section (the largest of any symphony up to that point); and it’s a solemn musical depiction of Cologne Cathedral. The piece is one of Schumann’s grandest works but is exceedingly difficult to pull off. There are many secrets buried behind its turgid orchestration (conductors including Mahler have often tried to retouch it), and although the BSO is sounding its best these days, it takes a conductor with more focus and perception than Alsop to reveal these secrets. Kudos to the winds, particularly the horns, for lovely playing. Would that there had been enough clarity to appreciate all the other felicities, for too much of the time, all we got was a wall of sound.
It might have been better to reverse the composers, with Grimaud giving us the Schumann concerto and the BSO a Brahms symphony. Although Grimaud has fully captured the Brahms sound-world on the keyboard — rich, growling bass and great clarity of middle voices — she is too mercurial and “expressive” to do full justice to this rigorously symphonic composition, where motives are shared and explored in the greatest detail between soloist and orchestra. She couldn’t play her opening measure in time — just a simple bar of arpeggio commentary on the horn melody — and this rhapsodic feeling permeated too much of the rest of the performance. Crucial three-against-two rhythms were frequently distorted, bass lines were slightly ahead of the melody a la Chopin, and dotted rhythms occasionally sounded limp. Grimaud is a major artist, no question, but her muse is perhaps not severe enough for this granitic piece.
The concert opened with “Within Her Arms” by Anna Clyne, for 15 solo strings. Immeasurably better than her debut effort, “«rewind«,” (2006), the elegiac music breathes the same air as Arvo Pärt or the Third Quartet of Britten. Meandering but enjoyable.