Baltimoe has had a distinguished orchestra for many a year, and a recent chance to hear it in Symphony Hall hereproved again that the Baltimore Symphony is a fine ensemble indeed in the exceptionally goods hands of music director Sergiu Comissiona.
The first half of his program proved a virtuosic test of the orchestra's collective and individual musicianship -- Ravel's "Rapsodie Espagnole" and the "Concerto for the Left Hand," with Leon Fleisher the soloist.
Rarely has a performance of the "Rapsodie" captured so brilliantly that languid heat one associates with spain. The tempos were slow -- very slow -- and without ex ception, they worked. Comissiona conjured from hte players seamless phrases, superb clarity in balances, and a vividly Ravelian sound throughout, even to the telling use of portamento in the strings -- that sliding up or down to a note that adds so much in mood, yet is so totally out of style today.
The concerto was equally brilliant in execution, with Mr. Fleisher in superb form, ferreting out eveyr last scrap of drama and poetry from the keyboard, and Comissiona exploring those possibilities with him in probing, revealing form.
But then came Saint-Saens' Third Symphony, called "Organ," and things slipped. Comissiona found ravishing details galore without rally finding the grand sweep and passion. The orchestral playing became gruff, the winds and brass rather blowsy.
All this could have been overlooked ifthe organ contributions had been acceptable. But Frederick Minger appeared not to have gotten toknow the Symphony Hall organ itself at all. Thewashed-out sounds that came in the haunting Adagio had nothing to do with Saint-Saens' vision. The sound did not cut through in the finale. At one point Minger touched a live keyboard when he was not meant to be playing -- an overlookable error. But later he entered with thunder when a hush was called for. At still another time, he had a thunderous outburst during a quieter moment where no organ was asked for.
The symphony Hall organ has its share of problems -- the Boston Symphony has consistently refused to spend the money to restore it to something viable, which is a pitty. But the Boston folk are simply adhering to the philosophy so prevalent today that a romantic organis not needed, even in romantic music that calls for it. New halls are being built without organs or with electronic horrors instead, and conductors who know better allow it. Butthat Comissiona allowed a less-than-adequate organist to come along on a tour like this does seem inexplicable.
He could point to the boisterous ovation that greeted the performance as justification, the same way Seiji Ozawa could have pointed to noisy acclaim for his low-caliber performance with Anthony Newman and the Boston Symphony several seasons back. But ovations do not good performances make, and the Comissiona-Baltimore performance was not up to the standards set in the Ravel.