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Wrestling With a Conflicted Concerto

The Los Angeles Philharmonic plays a more genial than emotional version of Bartok's violin piece that sounds better on some key recordings.


Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2 is a work of some mystification, not unlike its time, the late 1930s. Its opening of strummed harp and a memorable lyrical tune played on the solo violin has the timeless beauty of a rich Hungarian soul music. Its slow movement glows, romantic and lush like a gypsy campfire; and that atmosphere, replete with the scurrying sounds of not always benign nature and infinite starry sky, is one of the most wondrous things Bartok wrote.

Yet the concerto comes from a frightening moment in history, a Hungary and a Europe that Bartok would soon have to flee. Violence seems to come out of nowhere in this music. Michael Steinberg, in his excellent book "Concerto," speaks of hearing the work for the first time in a record store listening booth and thinking, "Air raid!" Others, however, spend happy hours uncovering all the clever ways Bartok has of avoiding emotion altogether by transforming themes (the last movement is the first movement reinvented) and hiding 12-tone rows.

The concerto finds its way onto the Los Angeles Philharmonic schedule with appropriate regularity, and the performance Thursday night seemed almost self-recommending. The soloist, Gil Shaham, has just made a dazzlingly inventive recording of the concerto for Deutsche Grammophon, with Pierre Boulez conducting the Chicago Symphony. The guest conductor, David Zinman, knows something about sustaining beauty over the fields of horror; he conducts the famous Nonesuch recording of Gorecki's Third Symphony.

And the Philharmonic is well-versed in Bartok and his concerto. It has recorded the piece twice; the most recent is a gripping, bold performance by Viktoria Mullova, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, that received great acclaim in Europe last year (shamefully, the Philips label has no plans for an American release).

But the chemistry of music-making can be unpredictable. Thursday's performance of the concerto in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was genial. Acoustics may have had something to do with it. The orchestra failed to "speak," at least from my orchestra-level seat, especially in the chamber-music details of scoring. Timpani and harp are featured instruments, and the string often has an eerie sheen to it, but all of it sounded distant, remote.


Shaham, on the other hand, is an upfront fiddler, and he seems to become more outgoing each time he appears, which is with some frequency. His playing was technically spectacular and cheerfully showy; he didn't probe. If Bartok implied a smidgen of gypsy swagger, Shaham bounded about on stage as if ready to enlist the whole string section into a war effort. Lyrical moments were turned into seduction scenes. Virtuoso flights became acrobatic displays. On the new recording Boulez challenges the violinist, and Shaham's quick responses are a delight. Zinman gave him rope.

Zinman, an important champion of American composers during his dozen years as music director of the Baltimore Symphony, remained in Eastern Europe in this program, beginning with Kodaly's "Dances of Galanta" and ending with Dvorak's Symphony No. 5. The Hungarian dances were alive in the way Zinman's buoyant new Beethoven recordings with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich are. Michelle Zukovsky's captivating solo clarinet lines helped set the tone.

The Dvorak, for most listeners, was a rare adventure. Though a major symphony that lasts nearly 40 minutes, it is rarely heard. It is a symphony written in the heat of inspiration by a young composer who had just found the full flowering of his voice but was not entirely in control of it. At times it almost sweeps you out of your seat with its irrepressible invention, one great tune bursting out of the gate after another. Dvorak would later learn how to tighten his forms and write stronger finales. This symphony could wear with too much repetition, but there seems little danger in that.

Zinman, looking avuncular with fluffy gray beard and warm smile, led another amiable performance, this time appropriately so. It is impossible to say what the Czech sound is exactly, but it is not impossible to recognize it. Zinman seemed to understand the accents, the lilt of the rhythms, the ebullience of the orchestrations. Some of the orchestra's high-power sheen was missing, but there were plenty of smiles on the faces of the Philharmonic's players who seemed to be enjoying themselves.

* The Philharmonic repeats this program Sunday at 2:30 p.m., $11-$65, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., (323) 850-2000.

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