In Rachmaninoff, Context is Everything—and an Opening Night Crescendo

United StatesUnited States Glazunov, Khachaturian, and Rachmaninoff: Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 9.10.2014 (BJ)

Glazunov: “Autumn,” from The Seasons
Khachaturian: Piano Concerto
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 1 in D minor

Philadelphia Orchestra Opening Night Gala: Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Yannick Nézet-Séguin (piano duet), Philadelphia Orchestra members and friends, Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 10.10.2014 (BJ)

Ravel: Suite from Ma mère l’oye
Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Yannick Nézet-Séguin (piano duet)

various, arr. Bar-David
Ohad Bar-David (cello) et al.

various, arr. DePue and Heifetz
Jason DePue (violin and mandolin) et al.

Dupré: “Placare Christe servulis” from Le Tombeau de Titelouze
Peter Richard Conte (organ)

Ravel: La Valse
Philadelphia Orchestra

It’s a funny place, the world of music. Consider the two subscription programs that ushered in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2014//2015 season.

The first one, reviewed in these columns last week, presented us with a piano concerto of aristocratic poise and delicately poetic inspiration, played by the soloist with self-indulgent vulgarity—Mozart as dispatched by Lang Lang. In the second one, now under review, we heard a self-indulgently vulgar piano concerto to which the soloist brought welcome aristocratic poise and a touch, so far as the music allowed it, of poetry.

The Khachaturian Piano Concerto, as you may have guessed, is not exactly my shot of vodka. It lacks even the passing consolation of a couple of good, catchy tunes, such as those that hold the attention in the composer’s otherwise equally undistinguished Violin Concerto. But the sort of controlled brilliance that Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and the orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, mustered in playing it substantially mollified the tedium of its pervasively clangorous sonorities, and it had the advantage, moreover, of appearing on the program after the “Autumn” section from Glazunov’s ballet The Seasons, whose raucous orchestration and irrepressible stop-start interruption of motion made Khachaturian sound almost restrained and coherent by comparison.

The question of program juxtapositions and their effect on the listener came even more vividly to my mind with the third work on this program. Just short of his 24th birthday, the famously disastrous premiere of his Symphony No. 1 threw Rachmaninoff into a depression that lasted a full three years and completely inhibited composition until, recovering with the help of the psychotherapist Nikolai Dahl, he produced one of his most popular works, the Second Piano Concerto.

As I listened to the symphony in the powerful and exciting performance Nézet-Séguin drew from the orchestra, I was driven to reflect that, when we read about such historic first-performance disasters as befell Rachmaninoff back in 1897, we never seem to be told what else was on the program with the unfortunate work that was receiving its premiere. And I really think we ought to be given that background information, for I can imagine that, while juxtaposition with a great piece by one of the Austro-German masters might cast this youth-work in a fatally unfavorable light, heard after the two relatively trashy pieces in this program’s first half it sounded, if not quite like a masterpiece, close enough to that stature to make me regret its almost total neglect by the people who make orchestral programs.

At the very least, the skillful contrapuntal writing in the first movement’s development section, the idiosyncratic but cogent structure of the scherzo, and a slow movement that foreshadows the musing mystery of the mature Rachmaninoff’s high romantic style without attempting anything like the prodigal lushness of the corresponding movement in his Second Symphony—all these conspired to make me regret that it has taken me so many years to hear the work live in the concert hall for the first time. And the hell-for-leather rhythmic onslaught of the finale, with its short motifs hammered and hammered out until suddenly cut off by a superbly dramatic tam-tam stroke, may be relatively simplistic in style, but it makes a highly appropriate conclusion for a symphony of much originality and sufficient cohesion.

The next evening was Opening Night—a touch curiously, since the season had already begun with five subscription performances. Nézet-Séguin had put together for the official inauguration of his third season as music director something like one of those “miscellaneous concerts” that were popular in the 19th century. In a charming and lucid spoken introduction, he described it as a journey from France to various different musical cultures.

The program worked effectively as a progressive crescendo, from the subtle sonorities of his four-hand-piano performance with Thibaudet of four movements from Ravel’s Mother Goose, by way of an assortment of traditional tunes and pieces by Massenet, Hernández, Debussy, and Ravel, played with much spirit by two ensembles drawn largely from the orchestra, to a thunderous (and mercifully short) organ piece by Marcel Dupré, and from there to brilliant accounts of La Valse, and of the Hungarian March from Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust by way of encore. Both of these last two performances lived somewhat on the loud end of the dynamic spectrum, and the Berlioz was more spirited than precise. But it’s obvious that the music director is reveling grandly in the sheer virtuosity of his orchestra and the evident relish of the players’ response to his leadership—and who can begrudge him that enjoyment?


Bernard Jacobson

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