It’s rare to find a concert program where a piece by Elgar trumps Rachmaninoff’s swooning and volatile Piano Concerto No. 2 in terms of emotive power. But pianist Andre Watts’s uncommonly expansive and ruminative reading of the concerto with the Baltimore Symphony, under Marin Alsop’s baton at Strathmore Hall on Saturday, made it seem a much subtler and less barnstorming work than usual.
Four decades ago, Watts used to deliver concertos like this one with the kind of glittering, powerhouse bravura expected of young keyboard virtuosos. But on Saturday, at tempos that at times seemed downright leisurely, Watts gave a performance that was heavy on structure and internal clarity but light on romance and rhetorical sweep. There were, to be sure, myriad instances where Watts elucidated hidden, inner voices, and his tone was gorgeous. But there was something formal and undemonstrative about his reading — that is, until the middle of the final movement when pianistic adrenaline suddenly spiked, and the concerto was finished with a rush of virtuosic excitement. It was quite a thrilling finale, but it sounded as if the end of a very different performance had been spliced onto the one Watts had been giving up to that point.
In contrast, Alsop and her orchestra gave a reading of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 that lit sparks throughout. With plenty of warmth to spare in the tender moments, this was searching, mercurial Elgar with playing that reached points of fever pitch and conjured Scriabin, Franck and Mahler in its surging shifts of mood. It was as far from staid, roast-beef-and-pudding Elgar as one was likely to hear.