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Brilliant Barto

Guest soloist Tzimon Barto conquers Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no. 2 at SJ Symphony concert

By Philip Collins

THE PROFOUND artistry of piano virtuoso Tzimon Barto made the San Jose Symphony's concert Friday a night to remember. A more powerful and lovely interpretation of Rachmaninoff's ubiquitous Concerto no. 2 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra is unimaginable--for the time being, at least.

Richard Strauss' six-part Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) made for a riotous second act that included plenty of provocative musical impressions, but the grace and exactitude that Barto had lavished upon the ears earlier in the evening proved a tough act to follow. Strauss' Technicolor score could have used more polish than it received Friday. Music Director Leonid Grin's zealous lead accounted for the grandeur of the symphonic tone poem in broad sweeps that left little room for shading.

Barto overlooked no detail. With a woodcutter's physique and the poise of Nureyev, Barto presided over the keyboard's total domain. From a vantage that clearly encompassed the whole architecture of the Second Piano Concerto, Barto's playing naturally drew one's attention to the exquisite finer points. Each nuance seemed as inevitable in the whole as the most stupendous of climaxes.

Discerning pedal work was another virtue of Barto's playing that served the concerto's expressive reach decisively. Rachmaninoff's long, winding melodies enjoyed a legato touch of indefatigable sustenance without any compromise on harmonic clarity. Barto let his fingers, instead of the sustain pedal, do the connecting, and the results were captivating.

The piano's introspective passages were enveloped in warmth rather than leftover ringing notes, which is so often the case with this piece. How nice to savor the composer's keyboard intimacies without all that lugubrious pedal business.

The subtle gradations of weight that Barto lent to the chordal passages in the first two movements were always songful, especially the opening solo episode, which exuded a sincerity that seemed to spring direct from the heart. Later, his diminuendo leading into the adagio dissolved ever so gradually into silence--and then beyond.

The audience bolted into standing position en masse upon the concerto's conclusion, and it wasn't simply due to the elders' appreciation of the third movement's rhapsodic melody made famous in the 1946 hit ballad "Full Moon and Empty Arms."

Barto simply stole the show, and the crowd wouldn't let him leave the stage without paying back with an encore, a posthumous Nocturne in C Minor by Chopin.

Grin and the orchestra added robust support to Barto, keeping neck and neck with the soloist's highly refined tempo choices.

Although the rapport wasn't silk-smooth in every instance, the rhythmic alignment remained quite secure, and a number of the solo entries by orchestra principals were outstanding. Clarinetist Michael Corner's phrasing of the adagio's wistful theme was gorgeous, gently tapered and perfectly tuned.

STRAUSS' Ein Heldenleben enjoyed equally fine artistry from the ranks. Concertmaster Byung-Woo Kim was most notably featured throughout, and his eloquent renderings included some of the work's sweetest moments. Principal French hornist Wendell Rider upheld the score's "heroic" element lyrically, although the orchestra's unwieldy dynamic levels at times muscled in on his territory.

The final movement, "The Hero's Retirement ... ," though rough-edged, featured an entrancing English horn lullaby by Patricia Emerson Mitchell. Timpanist Robert J. Erlebach Jr.'s restrained heartbeat accompaniment played a key part in creating the movement's concluding sense of repose.

For years, Ein Heldenleben was believed to be autobiographical because of the extensive use of themes that Strauss borrowed from his earlier works. Strauss, however, disclaimed any serious associations between the score's program of events and his own life--even though the penultimate movement hosts a veritable downpour of Strauss riffs from Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra, Tod und Verklärung, Don Quixote, Till Eulenspiegels and Macbeth, along with a bit from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony,

The most enduring impact of Ein Heldenleben is to be found in the score's orchestrational uniquenesses. Strauss' visionary instrumental creations are legion, but some of the ideas in Ein Heldenleben are among the most progressive in the composer's oeuvre. The downward toppling woodwinds in Parts II and III, for instance, offer a fascinating mesh of timbres and tonal ambiguity, and the finessing of overlapping musical quotes demonstrates a command of the medium that has perhaps only been surpassed by Stravinsky.

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From the Oct. 9-15, 1997 issue of Metro.

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