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Gentle Giants

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
10/11/2001 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto # 26
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony # 2

Alicia de Larrocha (piano)
New York Philharmonic
Andre Previn (conductor)

Igor Stravinsky once described Sergei Rachmaninoff as a six and a half foot frown. This bon mot is instructive on two important counts. Firstly, this great composer literally towered over his contemporaries (only Prokofieff had hands of such Herculean stature) and stood out in a crowd wherever he went. His height only increased his sense of isolation and Stravinsky's characterization is apt in that this man, tormented by clinical depression, hardly ever presented an affable front to the social world around him until later in life. What he did contribute was a rich bouquet of beautiful music tinged with the sufferings of the habitually disturbed and, like Sibelius, revealed that unique glow of crepuscular Northern light through a filter of pervasive pessimism. Rachmaninoff was reborn when he came to America (and after his depression was ameliorated by hypnosis), becoming the most popular of the contemporary crop of classical composers primarily through his extraordinary pianism. This very popularity was a source of frustration for him, as he did not want to be known as either a pianist or a conductor, but rather as a composer. However, he quickly fell into lockstep with the American way of making a living and realized that he could become the greatest advocate for his own compositions by keeping his face before the public through frequent concertizing. Other than Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff is the best known of Russian composers in the West and this is undoubtedly because of his physical presence in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles in the 1930's and early '40's. Although not in an anniversary year, the melancholy titan is the subject of no less than three festivals in New York this season and this reviewer, for one, couldn't be more delighted.

The first part of the Lincoln Center tribute, which would have concentrated on works for piano and orchestra, was cancelled when the Philharmonia could not come across during those first terrible days after the attack on the World Trade Center, but Andre Previn and the New York Philharmonic were now ready to weigh in with their contribution: an opportunity to evaluate Rachmaninoff on his own terms, as a symphonic composer unencumbered by his excess baggage of keyboard virtuosity. My experience of Previn with the Phil has always been a positive one: through some sort of necromancy he exhorts a much richer sound out of them than any other regular guest conductor. Although the antithesis of the composer in physical stature, this versatile musician always emphasizes overall sonority and, in this extremely lush piece, the effort is breathtaking. Of course, this type of solid performance begs the question of the Philharmonic's consistency, but let's not go there today. Instead, I prefer to relish the sheer rapture of this performance, the loving lyricism of Stanley Drucker's elongated clarinet solo in the third movement an extended moment to treasure for years to come.

If Rachmaninoff and David Robinson had the two largest pairs of hands among 20th century classical pianists, then Mieczyslaw Horszowski and Alicia de Larrocha had to have possessed the smallest. But each of these diminutive artists (one can see at a glance why Previn loves Madame: he absolutely towers over her) turned their perceived weakness into a major strength. This performance of the Coronation was not the most accurate, but the beauty of Ms. de Larrocha's touch bespoke a stature far above her more heavy-handed colleagues. Again, the orchestra (very small itself) played brilliantly. This is my first New York Philharmonic concert in this season of conductorial uncertainty (Kurt Masur has already announced significant cancellations). Hopefully it is a harbinger of big things to come.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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