United StatesUnited States  Britten, Ravel, Rachmaninoff: Ingrid Flitter (piano), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra,  Justin Brown, (conductor), Music Hall , Cincinnati, Ohio. 4.1.2013  (RDA)

Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem.
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major
Rachmninoff: Symphonic Dances, opus 46.

The year was 1939 and the Japanese were already flexing their muscles in the Pacific when Benjamin Britten was commissioned by the Tokyo government to write a piece on the occasion of the 2600th anniversary of the Nippon Empire. The contract for the commission took forever to arrive, leaving Britten with just a few weeks in which to complete the assignment.

Pacifist Britten composed his Sinfonia da Requiem as the commissioned work – hardly a celebratory one, but a deeply-felt homage to his dead parents. The Japanese thought better of the whole affair and dispatched a curt letter to the composer, withdrawing the commission and rejecting the work on the grounds of its “overtly-Christian undertones.”

The three-part symphony is a through-composed work with a slow and elegiac first movement –Lachrymosa –that segues into a frenzied Scherzo – Dies Irae – which leads into a final Requiem aeternam – all three sections corresponding to portions of the Catholic Mass for the Dead. Justin Brown conducted the Britten with gravitas and imagination, eliciting superb work from the CSO.

The year before Maurice Ravel began to work on his jazz-inflected Piano Concerto in G Major he had toured the United States as a pianist-conductor and listened to a great deal of the American music he loved. When he finally finished it Ravel gave it to pianist Marguerite Long to premiere in Paris with the composer conducting.

The work is lively and filled with humor and, yes, jazzy – just listen to its whiplash opening and later to the guffawing brass riffs at the end of the first movement. But, in the midst of all the blaring trumpets and snare drums, a modal melody insinuates itself and, suddenly, we are transported to Spain, the land to which half-Basque Maurice Ravel’s heart belonged.

The Adagio movement is by the “other” Ravel – disciplined, with a long-flowing melodic line that seems to spin forever. The third, very brief and tonally-ambiguous movement again salutes America.

Ravel gives the soloist in his Piano Concerto in G plenty of labor-intensive playing and the elegant Argentinian pianist Ingrid Flitter took up the challenges of the G Major with all the fury and speed called for in the first and last movements and with the required nuanced delicacy in the middle Adagio. Ms. Flitter is daring and musical and the Cincinnati audience called her back for several solo bows.

Sergei Rachmaninoff composed his Symphonic Dances while living in America in 1940 – its three movements, Noon, Twilight and Midnight rhythmic enough to be labeled “dances” but as soulful, as deeply spiritual, as not-of-this-world as few other works by the devout Russian Orthodox Rachmaninoff.

Like its composer, the work itself is conflicted, questioning, struggling to make peace with God and make sense of the human condition in musical terms, its three movements representing the composer’s journey from youth to exile to a final coming-to-terms with his own mortality

Rachmaninoff quotes in the final movement the Dies Irae of Catholic provenance and the Russian Orthodox church hymn “Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi” in a mighty battle in which the latter’s praise for a redeeming, forgiving God emerges triumphant over the Roman Catholic God of fire and brimstone that presides over Judgment Day.

Maestro Brown embraced the work with passion and magisterial command of its rhythmic and orchestral intricacies, bringing the evening to a rousing climax.

Rachmaninoff penned in his own hand one word at the end of this, his very last composition: Аллилуйя! – the Russian word for Hallelujah!

Rafael de Acha