Maazel knows the score but rarely feels the music
There are few conductors around today who command the podium with Lorin Maazel's authority. Few also who have at their command such a broad knowledge of scores, interpretations, and performance styles. He is perhaps most admired for his ability to control a huge, erratic band of players and make them play handsomely, with remarkable balances, superior blends, and eloquent phrasings.
But all these prodigious gifts are wedded to a musician who has rarely given the impression that he feels anything about what he is doing. He has thought about ways to get musical points across, but rarely does a Maazelian gesture ever seem to come from the heart.
This was the profile that dominated a series of three New York concerts by the Orchestre National de France in celebration of that institution's 50th anniversary. Maazel was its music director until 1982, when he assumed the role of head of the Vienna State Opera. It is an unruly orchestra, capable of great extremes of dynamic range, with a biting edge ideal for the French repertoire and the Prokofiev included on the programs. The players were not uncomfortable in the lusher, more melting demands of the two Rachmaninoff symphonies performed. Yet refinement and polish are not really the group's strong points.
Tuning was often a problem - the number of sour, flat solos in the winds and brass was genuinely startling. But they all play with enthusiasm and dedication, as was winningly apparent throughout most of the three programs (two in Carnegie Hall and one in Avery Fisher Hall).
The trio of programs got off to a quaint start with Dukas's ''The Sorcerer's Apprentice'' in a bloated reading that found Maazel able to galvanize his forces in a demonic view of this fluffy tone poem. Also, a Prokofiev piano concerto, with Horacio Gutierrez as soloist, and a Rachmaninoff symphony were offered each of the first two evenings.
Maazel is recording a Rachmaninoff symphony cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic: His reading of the Third is excellent, and surprisingly straightforward for this wayward musician. But his performance in Carnegie Hall was willful, distorted, and occasionally downright perverse. The Second, however - a few erratic tempo changes or phrasing eccentricities aside - was eloquent and alert to nuance, with some handsome string playing from the orchestra and a splendid balance between the contemplative and the propulsive.
Maazel the accompanist has always been first-rate. Mr. Gutierrez tends to jump ahead of himself now and then, making Maazel's task difficult, but he has the fingers to make the most challenging pages of either the Second or Third concertos seem almost easy. And that of itself is a spellbinding feat, particularly in the Second. Poetry is not something Mr. Gutierrez possesses in abundance, but his powerhouse approach to both these works was mightily convincing in its own way.
The third program found the orchestra on the tired side. The previous night's concert, which was taped for European TV broadcast, had been particularly long - lasting over 21/2 hours. The fatigue was particularly audible in the first half of Wednesday's program, which included Debussy's ''La Mer'' and Ravel's G major Piano Concerto, Bruno Leonardo Gelber, pianist.
The Debussy was eccentric; the Ravel lacked pulse, particularly from Mr. Gelber. The complete Stravinsky ''Firebird'' that comprised the second half of the program was arbitrary and chilly for the most part, with some exquisite detail work, and a distended ending cynically gauged to arouse audience enthusiasm, which it did.
Avery Fisher Hall tends to brutally highlight such orchestral blemishes, even though Maazel did manage to generate some beguiling sounds in an acoustic that does not lend itself to such a feat.
Maazel stands outside himself, looking to make this effect and that to show his audiences that he is in control, that he has this unique ability to make an orchestra play alertly, and that he has trained it to respond to his generally arbitrary stretchings of phrases and variances in tempo. Maazel tended to be more spontaneous with the Cleveland Orchestra when he was its music director. Only the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony performance echoed that spontaneity. Since Mr. Maazel will not be at the Vienna State Opera after 1986, perhaps he will find more time to find the heart of a piece rather than its external trappings. With so much to offer he owes it to himself as well as to the public.