Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – 26th November

Academic Festival Overture
Violin Concerto in D
Symphony No.2 in D

Sayaka Shoji (violin)
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yuri Temirkanov

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 26 November, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

For any orchestra, even a German one, to bring an all-Brahms programme to London is curious. That an American orchestra, one “renowned for its uncompromising artistic innovation,” did so is stranger still. Hopefully this choice wasn’t dictated by a perception that London audiences only go to hear what they know – nevertheless, a collecting of music heard in London virtually every week seemed a miscalculation. Samuel Barber’s First Essay is included in the BSO’s tour; this would have made a more appropriate entrée. Debussy’s La mer and Ravel’s La valse also feature. Pamela Frank would have been very welcome as advertised – so too was Miss Shoji – but Andre Watts is the other tour-soloist with Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto; this individual pianist is long overdue a London appearance. Christopher Rouse is the Orchestra’s ’New Music Consultant’ – this distinguished American composer’s Phaeton, say, would have been very agreeable.

Although the stalls of the Barbican Hall were more or less fully occupied, it was the only area with an audience. A goodly number seemed to be with the concert’s sponsors – not for the first time has an interval been extended by social excursions; arriving back late, keeping Orchestra and audience waiting, is disrespectful.

The concert itself confirmed the BSO is an excellent orchestra – something already known from its many CDs with former Music Director David Zinman. Temirkanov, his successor, a regular in London, is not particularly associated with Brahms; these perfectly decent readings do not alter that situation. All three works were well prepared, played with personality, fine blend and subtlety – rich, silky strings, integrated brass (very welcome!) and a lively, characterful woodwind section, the distinctive oboe timbre marking the BSO as American.

Temirkanov’s undemonstrative conducting let the music flow; textures were homogeneous rather than explicit. An over-impetuous symphony finale mirrored the overture – exuberant if somewhat relentless – albeit rendered with keen dexterity. The first movement’s exposition increased in pace, eschewing a repeat, neatly segueing into the stormier development, which became harried. The concert’s highlight was the symphony’s slow movement where a burst of tuba tone signalled an intense and heartfelt traversal that brought Brahms closer to Tchaikovsky.

Temirkanov’s accompaniment for Sayaka Shoji, while accommodating, was rather off-the-peg. She, at 18, clearly has a bright future; she is natural, poised, confident and gifted. Reminding 60:40 of Henryk Szeryng and David Oistrakh, the former’s technical regard, the latter’s emotional distance, she was at her most convincing in the lyrical music. A tendency to be slightly under the note in more strenuous passages, Shoji has some way to go to make this concerto more her property – this was an ’as taught’ rendition – though she spread her wings in Joachim’s cadenza with some individual touches.

The parsimonious encore, an American folksong in a homespun arrangement, rather summed-up the evening as a whole – a wasted opportunity to showcase the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra beyond D major Brahms.

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