An Impressive Pianist and an Extraordinary Orchestral Ensemble

United StatesUnited States Chapela, Barber, Rachmaninoff: Inon Barnatan (piano), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra / James Gaffigan (conductor), Cincinnati Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio. 7.4.18 (RDA)

Enrico Chapela: Radioaxial (2018, world premiere)

Barber: Piano Concerto

Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances

To open this concert at the Music Hall, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere of Mexican composer Enrico Chapela’s Radioaxial. Massively scored, Chapela’s work alternates moments of aural density with occasional pockets of streamlined lyricism. The string players are at times asked to provide percussive sounds, and the percussion players respond with the xylophone and glockenspiel in passages of ethereal sweetness and clarity. Radioaxial builds to its climax by adding layers of contrapuntal complexity, rather than by merely growing in volume. With guest conductor James Gaffigan coaxing a roof-raising performance from the CSO, Chapela’s intriguingly inventive composition demands attention, and received an enthusiastic ovation from the sometimes staid Cincinnati audience.

In 1962, Samuel Barber was 52 and well established when his Piano Concerto was first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf. He occasion was the opening of Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall (which would eventually become Avery Fisher Hall, and now renamed for David Geffen). Barber’s concerto is all brilliance and dazzle, notwithstanding its being anchored in potentially somber minor keys throughout its three movements. Never one to avoid an occasional flirtation with dissonance, Barber establishes a tone row at the onset of the first movement, an unusual cadenza-like start before the orchestra ever utters a note, and returns to it.

That first movement is reasonably difficult to play. The warp-speed third makes many a pianist break a sweat. But the middle Canzone (‘Song’) is the high point, with its unapologetic embrace of a singing melody, which Barber had used earlier in another composition.

Mercurial, technically-assured, energetic, impassioned, and immensely musical, pianist Inon Barnatan gave a stunning reading, valiantly tackling both the opening and closing, and eliciting a lovely tone from his instrument in the soulful central movement. The orchestra, brilliantly led by Gaffigan, reciprocated with sensitivity that allowed the soloist to stand out when needed, and showed formidable prowess in the orchestral interludes.

Deeply spiritual, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances have little to do with dance and much to do with the composer’s gradual reconciliation with his own Orthodox religion, and an inevitable late-life confrontation with mortality. The composer was in his sixties when he heard his final composition by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.

As with his Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, the composer quotes the ancient plainchant Dies Irae (‘Day of Wrath’), but in this instance he sets it to do musical battle with a Russian Easter chant that sings the praise of the resurrection of Christ. The latter melody vanquishes the first in a rousing finale towards the end of the final movement. Here again the musicians reminded us of the extraordinary orchestral ensemble that resides in the Queen City.

Rafael de Acha

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