Beethoven by the Baltic – A Review by Marek Zebrowski

The Philharmonic Society of Orange County presented the Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa on March 15. This concert marked one of the last stops on Baltic Phil’s extensive tour of the U.S. that began on the East Coast in early January.

For the southern California program, the orchestra presented an all-Beethoven program, beginning with the Egmont Overture that amply displayed the richness of Baltic’s strings and prowess of its gleaming brass section. Young Polish pianist Marcin Koziak joined the orchestra in performance of the “Emperor” Piano Concerto and, after the intermission, the evening concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

Throughout the well-attended concert, the orchestra steadily shone with a full, masculine sound; the winds and brass more than passed the test in several exposed solos throughout, and the double basses proved their agility by keeping apace in their celebrated third movement solos of Beethoven’s Fifth.

Agility could also be a byword for the pianist’s approach to the Emperor Concerto, for his fingers were more than able to negotiate the passagework in the first and last movements. However, Marcin Koziak’s interpretation was curiously withdrawn and emotionally sterile, robbing this exceptional work of its grandeur and scope, and turning it into something that might have been written by the lesser-known lightweights of the Classical era.

The pianist’s uncertain approach to the Concerto might have been caused by maestro Bogusław Dawidow, whose leadership of the orchestra in the “Emperor” and throughout the entire program left much to be desired. The dangerous lack of coordination (especially in the magical moments of the “Emperor” where timpanist and pianist engage in an unprecedented duet), the carelessly fast tempo of the Concerto’s slow movement (marked, after all, Adagio poco moto), as well as in several other instances, precluded the magnificence and splendor of the music from rising to the occasion. The public might have sensed the soloist’s dilemma and applauded him heartily, which elicited from Mr. Koziak a quick encore of Chopin’s C minor Etude from Opus 25.

The iconic opening of Fifth Symphony verged on a false start with Meastro Dawidow failing to provide a decisive gesture to his orchestra. Here, as elsewhere, the orchestra sensibly kept their eyes on the concertmaster, Robert Kwiatkowski, who did his very best to keep the ensemble together. Musically, there was very little insight, drive and poetry that Maestro Dawidow could have demonstrated to the audience in all four movements of the Symphony. Thus, the heartfelt triumph of victory over fate in the climactic moments of the final Allegro rang hollow (in spite of the excellent brass fanfares), dramatically reducing the impact of this great orchestral masterpiece.

It would have been apt to program at least one work by a Polish composer on the Baltic Philharmonic’s program, especially since the interpretation of Beethoven throughout the concert fell so short of expectations. Nonetheless, the audience very generously rose to thank the performers at the end of the concert. At this point—here came another surprise—Maestro Dawidow sprang to action and delivered a spirited and heartfelt reading of Khachaturian’s famous Valse from the Masquerade Suite. Music was able to speak, briefly, at last.