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A Brief Encounter with Rachmaninoff

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
01/14/2018 -  & January 17, 2018 (Reykjavik)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

Dénes Várjon (piano)
Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor)

D. Várjon

“Welcome to the jungle
we got fun and games…”
Guns N’ Roses

2018 marks my twentieth year of writing music reviews from New York and the number hovers around the 1000 mark. Not many of those events were as surprising as the last one conducted by Iván Fischer. For better or worse Maestro has earned a reputation as a trickster. Last season here at Lincoln Center he allowed about 20 music student instrumentalists to crash the party during the final moments of the Beethoven 5th Symphony, which did seem to energize the crowd but called into question his serious musical bona fides.

The New York Philharmonic is the only orchestra in this town that features chamber music. Often their Saturday matinee concerts consist of a small ensemble performing an instrumental piece followed by intermission and then a full-bodied orchestral essay. Maestro Fischer began this event with Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2, utilizing a septet of instruments as well as a portable organ that he himself struck to announce key changes. This was a generously subdued version with the flute of Gabriella Pivon given pride of place. A handsome introduction to the Beethoven to come (see below).

The greatest Russian symphonies ignored in America are those of Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, all of which deserve a much more comprehensive exploration and presentation, so we owe a vote of thanks to maestro for his programming this afternoon. He found the secret to pleasing and challenging a sold-out audience. The Rachmaninoff 2nd Symphony is perhaps the most emotionally devastating in the entire Eastern European lexicon. The combination of vivid colors, courageous juxtapositions and overwhelmingly beautiful and sad melodies – and their arrangements – is almost too much to bear if the performance is a good one. This reading was exceptionally fine, the first movement positively psychedelic in fervent content reminiscent of Scriabin. Rachmaninoff was deeply depressed during his days composing this symphony and he wears his heart (and his tears) on his sleeve. The third movement was excruciatingly beautiful and pathetic. I am not ashamed to state that I cried during it. Rachmaninoff found the secret to the moving of an audience when the clarinet sings its solo of beautiful sadness against glimmers of hope and radiance. I would state emphatically that this was the best concert of the season except that the Concertgebouw will be here in three days!

Of course I know that the music employed in the film Brief Encounter is from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 not his Symphony No. 2, however the exotic sublimity is of the same degree of cherished memory.

Okay, but what about the trickster? Would he do something unorthodox? Yes, and something that I have experienced before. For their encore the entire ensemble sang! the Vocalise of Rachmaninoff.

Remembering the Louis C. K. routine about people who lived before Jesus having to number their years backwards – so that on New Year’s Eve of the year minus 3 everyone waited for the new year of minus 4 – made me think of Beethoven, who not only premiered both his Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 6 on the same program with the numbers reversed but whose Piano Concerto No. 2 was premiered before the Concerto No. 1!

Considering the question of when did modern music begin, friends and colleagues are probably sick of hearing me prattle on about this, but I consider that the written cadenza of the Piano Concerto No. 3, composed just as the new century began in 1801, is Beethoven’s statement of the new path that classical music was about to follow for at least 150 years. Pay strict attention to the hero’s journey from first note to last.

Frederick Kirshnit

Sometime in April of 1801 Beethoven wrote to his Leipzig publisher Breitkopf & Härtel referring to his earlier piano concertos (in B-flat Major op. 19 and C Major op. 15) neither of which, in his own words was “one of my best compositions” and hinting that he had a much better concerto (i.e. the one in C minor) up his sleeve but that he is withholding it temporarily from publication for “musical policy demands that one should keep one’s finest concertos to oneself for a time”. And indeed his concerto, one that we know now as No. 3 in C minor op.37 didn’t make its appearance until April 5, 1803 during the subscription concert at the Theater an der Wien: at the same concert his Symphony No. 2 in D Major and an oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives, were also performed.

The stories abound about the last minute rehearsal, unfinished orchestral parts, and angry mood of players placated only by food and wine delivered by the Prince Lichnovsky and the usual disarray accompanying such proceeding. One story is been told more often than others and is worth retelling, as it was documented in the diary of Beethoven’s colleague Ritter von Seyfried: he was asked by the composer to turn pages for him during the performance and according to a report: “I saw nothing but empty leaves at the most here and there a few Egyptian hieroglyphics, wholly unintelligible to me, scribbled down to serve as clues for him. He played neatly all the solo part from memory. As was often the case he had not had time to put it on paper. Whenever he reached the end of invisible passage, he gave me a secret nod. My obvious anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly”. The story is interesting not only for a description of the composer’s not the most refined sense of humor but also because the concerto is thought to be composed already two or three years earlier: I guess there was no time to write the score...

Knowing Maestro Fischer’s penchant for placing solo instruments from within the orchestra in a more prominent place than usual, I almost expected him to bring the timpani next to the piano, for in this concerto, perhaps for the first time, this instrument has a significant distinction. Well, this time I was wrong and timpani were placed at a more common location in the back of the orchestra, together with the seven double-basses. On the other hand those unwieldy in the wrong hands instruments which sometime tend to overpower the balances, on this occasion were extremely well-controlled by Mr. Roland Dénes. Maestro Fischer also prefers to place the different sections of the ensemble on the risers, all to a good effect, and also places the violins antiphonally which gives the ensemble an added richness. After the HIP (Historically Informed Performance) version, one player to a part in the Bach Orchestral Suite in B minor, for the piano concerto he brought the full ensemble, obviously subscribing to the seemingly contradictory notion that more dynamic nuances might be achieved with the larger forces.

Our soloist for the Concerto in C minor was the excellent Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon, known to New York audiences from his numerous appearances at the different venues both as soloist and chamber musician. His last performance took place last May when he offered a recital at the Walter Reade Theater, also sponsored by the Great Performers at Lincoln Center. Both Mr. Fischer and Mr. Várjon, separately, have recorded the complete set of Beethoven concertos and luckily their concept didn’t much differ. Again, after a rather brisk reading of Maestro Fischer’s Beethoven symphonies I expected a very energetic, hard-driven performance of this concerto. This one, however, was quite energetic but yet a well-controlled, expansive reading.

Mr. Várjon successfully combined the energy of approach with a freedom in phrasing, spontaneity and a clear articulation throughout. In the development section of the first movement I found especially appealing the chamber music quality of interplay between the winds and the piano. Beethoven’s own cadenza in the first movement gave Mr. Várjon a chance to further display his virtuosity and there were some nice touches as well as a few details different from the prevailing convention. Much is made of the sudden change of keys in the second movement Largo which is in the key of E Major, a little remote from the original C minor, but one must remember that it is not the first time Beethoven uses this combination of keys: in one of his earliest sonatas, also in the key of C (this time major) he also chooses E Major as one for the slow movement. Here in this broadly conceived canvas the pianist showed a beautiful ringing sound, rhythmic freedom and again a nice dialog between piano and winds. The last movement, Rondo, had an aristocratic feeling and wonderful, easygoing pacing. The sometimes maniacal coda this time was held just a tad back and that allowed the soloist to negotiate all the notes without hurry.

Mr. Várjon and his Hungarian compatriots’s performance gathered them a standing ovation and our soloist obliged with an encore – as Mr. Fischer sat among the orchestra members – which was a heartfelt, highly idiomatic and deeply personal interpretations of Bartók’s Three Dances from the Csik Region.

As far as the orchestra’s contribution there was a lot to admire: nice woodwinds, warm sound of the strings, nice interplay of the thematic material between the sections. There were also some ensemble imperfections which probably could be attributed to insufficient rehearsal time. A friend of mine declared afterwards, that if the “resident ensemble” in that venue, i.e. the New York Philharmonic, sounded that well and had similar warmth, perhaps the planned renovation of David Geffen Hall would be rendered unnecessary.

Roman Markowicz



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