Philadelphia Orchestra Repertoire: Plus ça change . . .

United StatesUnited States Rachmaninoff and Turnage: Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 23.1.2015 (BJ)

Rachmaninoff:          Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2 (orch. Stokowski)
Turnage:                    Piano Concerto
Rachmaninoff:          Symphony No. 2 in E minor

There was new music to be heard at this concert, but it was the old familiar firm of Rachmaninoff and Stokowski that set the evening on its course, and Rachmaninoff returned after intermission as a salve to the soul after the first half’s novelty.

Through a long career, though I have occasionally heard music by the abrasive 54-year old English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, I had until now managed to avoid reviewing any of it. But all good things, I suppose, must come to an end, and it was provided on this occasion by the North American premiere of his Piano Concerto, which was given its 2013 world premiere in Rotterdam by the same soloist and conductor.

Playing for a little over 20 minutes, the work is laid out in three movements, the central slow one occupying about half of the total length. Paul Griffiths’s program note, incidentally, alluded to the work’s fast-slow-fast design as a “form that the concerto as a genre almost demands.” I’m glad the word “almost” was included: tell this suggestion to such composers as Brahms and Elgar, who both wrote four-movement concertos, or Hans Werner Henze and Richard Wernick, with one- and two-movement concertos to their credit.

Turnage himself regards Henze, who died in 2012, as a mentor, and the central slow movement of his concerto is a memorial piece with the title “Last Lullaby for Hans.” How it is possible for a composer to write, in the great Henze’s memory, a movement totally devoid of character puzzles me, but Turnage has managed it, just as he has managed to preface and follow it with fast movements in which the orchestral writing is at once aggressively dissonant and expressively vapid.

The piano part of the concerto is by contrast relatively euphonious, and its prevailingly rapid rhythms are just the kind of thing Marc-André Hamelin excels at. He played superbly, as he always does in music whose values do not rise above technical brilliance.

So did the orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s obviously committed direction. But for sheer listening pleasure and emotional satisfaction it was the other two works on the program that showed how skillful and enthusiastic this latter-day Philadelphia music director can be in championing the composer who, decades ago, constituted a significant proportion of his predecessors Stokowski’s and Ormandy’s 20th-century repertoire.

Stokowski’s massively dark and percussion-laden orchestration of Rachmaninoff’s celebrated C-sharp-minor Prelude was calculated to hit the piece with the force of a sledgehammer cracking a nut. It sounded distinctly over the top, though admittedly the original piano piece is pretty dark and sledgehammerish in its own right. When we came to the Second Symphony, however, it was fascinating to hear, in this sumptuously toned and persuasively paced performance, how much delicacy and aural fantasy the composer himself was able to bring to the realization of his profoundly romantic inspiration.


Bernard Jacobson

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