Yefim Bronfman (Frank Stewart)

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra offered a curious pairing of large-scale works at Strathmore on Saturday: Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto with Yefim Bronfman, and the virtually unknown Twelfth Symphony of Shostakovich. The contrast was between one of the great geniuses of Western art operating at his zenith and an effortful attempt by a lesser master to write patriotic music without sounding like a hack. Marin Alsop led committed performances of both works.

Bronfman is one of the finest pianists before the public today. He walks softly and carries an enormous technical stick, dispatching the most difficult passages with such ease as to render them nearly invisible. The opening cadenza was mild, almost cut-and-dried; it made the related ones later in the movement seem boldly dramatic. The staccato octave scales in the development section continually changed weight and articulation as they marched up and down, and his left hand imparted extra bumptiousness to the Rondo theme. From beginning to end, it was the work of a master. The BSO responded to his top-level artistry with sensitivity (and nice, firm horn-playing).

Shostakovich’s music is at its most impenetrable and elusive when dealing, ostensibly, with patriotic themes. The Soviet regime’s unending pressure on artists to glorify its leaders and history created distorted (and often worthless) works in all media, as each creator made peace, or not, with his place in the culture. Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony (“The Year 1917”) was completed in 1961, shortly after he stunned friends and colleagues by finally joining the Communist Party.

But though he may have had a velleity toward ingratiating himself with the Soviets at some level, his musical soul figuratively held its nose. In this work and its predecessor (“The Year 1905”), Shostakovich did little more than go through the motions; expertly and with his trademark dramatic flair, but artistically inert. The deeper explorations of recrimination and pessimism revealed in the following two symphonies, as well as the brilliant musical canvases of the Eighth and Tenth symphonies, literally dwarf these two “historical” symphonies. The bombast that closes the Twelfth barely tries to hide its retread of the vastly superior Fifth symphony (in the same key).

Alsop led the proceedings with confidence, although long stretches of the piece simply required everyone to ride along with the percussion battery. There were particularly fine solos from the clarinet and bassoon in the second movement.

Battey is a freelance writer.