The highlight of Tuesday’s concert by the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium was a tour de force by Maine pianist Martin Perry, in a performance of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 38, which makes the Rachmaninoff Third sound like a five-finger exercise.

Some critics consider the Barber Op. 38 one of the concerto masterpieces of the 20th century. It is without doubt the most difficult. It was written for John Browning, a noted virtuoso of the 1950s and 1960s, who complained to the composer that the final movement — written 15 days before the scheduled premier – was impossible to play. Barber refused to change the score until Vladimir Horowitz concurred with Browning.

I don’t know what modifications Barber finally made but the original must have been a pianist’s nightmare in 5/8 time. Perry turned it into music.

The first movement opens unusually, with a piano soliloquy on three themes, interrupted by the orchestra with an entirely new one. The second is a re-working of Barber’s “Elegy for Flute and Piano,” with the composer’s typically lyrical melancholy, and the third is a whirlwind over an ostinato bass. Music director Robert Moody maintained an almost perfect balance of forces throughout.

Listeners who know Barber through his “Adagio for Strings” may be surprised by the ferocity of the concerto, but it has melodic underpinnings that are revealed with further listening.

The program began with Alan Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 2, Op. 132 (“Mysterious Mountain”). The work has been popular since its first recording in the 1950s, more for its title, which was an afterthought, than for its musical qualities, which are mainly atmospheric.

Concluding the evening was a masterful rendition of Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, which emphasized the pictorial quality of the composer’s portraits of his friends. It was also a good opportunity to show off the talents of the orchestra’s principals, on cello, viola and oboe.

The gigantic and moving “Nimrod” variation (IX) brought back memories of its use by former PSO conductor Toshi Shimada, to commemorate the victims of 9/11. It sounded as if the members of the orchestra recalled that also.

There has been a century-old argument over the theme of the variations, which Elgar never revealed. The program notes mentioned “Rule Britannia,” and all at once snatches of that tune seemed recognizable. Or was it the power of suggestion? 

Christopher Hyde’s “Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

classbeat@netscape.net