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NIWA OFFERS STRENGTH IN SAINT-SAENS 2ND

Gail Niwa is that rarity, a Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition winner whose concerto, Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, impressed me more than her earlier solo rounds.

Happily that was also true of her return engagement with the Utah Symphony Friday night in Symphony Hall, where the 1991 Bachauer winner served up a remarkably assured account of Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 2.I would not say this performance had the individual stamp of an Andre Watts (who has given us this piece twice in recent years) or a Cecile Ousset. What it did have, though, were strength, temperament and most of the time the requisite sparkle.

Witness the Bachian cadenza that opens the piece, here boldly enunciated yet carefully shaded. Likewise the concluding tarantella, full of dash and dynamism but, again, not too much. And although the second section of the scherzo might have been more buoyant (with a resulting loss of momentum), the rest was scampery enough, especially at the outset.

For their part associate conductor Kirk Muspratt and the orchestra offered a firmly molded accompaniment, still being careful to keep the spotlight on the soloist. The result was a presentation that sparked enough of an ovation that she obliged with an encore, an impressionistic reading of Rachmaninoff's G major Prelude (Op. 32, No. 5).

Earlier the evening had begun with a similarly committed account of Massenet's "Phedre" Overture, its dramatic intensity providing an appropriate context for the tragic longing of Racine's heroine.

At the same time Muspratt has never been the subtlest of conductors, something likewise evident in the other two pieces on the program, Hindemith's "Symphonic Metamorphoses (or "Metamorphosis," as it is more commonly printed) on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber" and Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration."

Thus the most effective parts of the Hindemith were its outer sections, a confidently striding Allegro and a March whose rugged vigor was fairly bursting to get out. (And happily Muspratt did hold some back until the end.)

Elsewhere the vigor verged on brashness - for example, the stabbing brass and agitated strings of "Turandot" - and that despite some flavorful wind playing. But I liked the way the semi-mysterious air carried over into the Andantino, with its artfully projected flute solo.

I also found the brashness stimulating in "Death and Transfiguration," which is, after all, a young man's view of that subject. (Strauss was only 25 at the time of its completion.)

Thus it was the struggle that was paramount here, and not just in the climaxes but in such things as the vividly colored harp writing and Ralph Matson's bittersweet violin solos. Even the final transfiguration, for all its breadth, had about it a faintly metallic edge.

The upshot was a not-terribly-rarefied view of the hero's passing, or even a notably transcendent one. The threat of death registered like the crack of doom, however, and the ovation that followed, for what is at present Muspratt's last scheduled appearance with this orchestra, was every bit the equal of Niwa's. And given the applause that greeted her effort, that's saying something.

- REPEAT PERFORMANCE: In the absence of Ousset's, Ciccolini (EMI), Collard (EMI) and Roge (London) offer the most appealing Saint-Saens Seconds on disc, followed by Wild (Chesky), Licad (CBS) and Davidovich (Philips).

Blomstedt (London) remains my choice for the Hindemith, after which come Bernstein and the composer's own recording (both on DG). Among "Death and Transfigurations," I would still give the nod to Haitink (Philips), although Toscanini's still packs a punch, as do Karajan's, Furtwaengler's, Horenstein's and, for sonics, Previn (Telarc) and Jaervi (Chandos).