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From London to Phoenix

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/06/2002 -  01/08/02
Sergei Rachmaninoff:
Three Russian Songs; Piano Concerto # 4; The Bells; The Isle of the Dead; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; Symphony # 3

Marina Shaguch (soprano)
Ilya Levinsky (tenor)
Sergei Koptchak (bass)
Alexander Ghindin and Stephen Hough (pianos)
St. Petersburg Chamber Choir
Dessoff Choirs
Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)

Of course, any compendium of Rachmaninoff’s music must begin and end at the piano. For their particular festival, postponed during those terrible days after September 11, Lincoln Center is featuring three concerts of music for piano and orchestra all of which was premiered by the composer. A fine practitioner himself, Vladimir Ashkenazy will forego the soloist role this trip as his Philharmonia Orchestra of London presents three different keyboard virtuosi in three programs of later works for the composer’s beloved instrument. By juxtaposing each of these pieces with a purely orchestral composition, this grouping emphasizes Rachmaninoff’s own fervent wish that he be remembered not as a pianist or even a conductor, but rather as a composer. Accompanying these concerts will be a solo recital and earlier in the year there was a film series, a piano workshop and a recital of songs (and this is just one of the three major events planned for New York this season!). Truly a feast for Russophiles, even if as high in cholesterol as chicken Kiev and blinis.

Day One: Bells Are Ringing

The bells of Russia became important symbols of church and later state power and many huge specimens were erected there to dazzle and therefore control the population. The world’s largest bell is located in the Kremlin and is called the “Tsar Kolokol III”. Built in 1735, it measures 690 centimeters in diameter and weighs a staggering 201,924 kilograms. Several strong men are required to pull the rope for this monstrous bell and others like it in the former Soviet Union. In the seventeenth century the Russians invented the trezvon, a large combination of bells of indeterminate pitch. The largest of these had twenty individual units with the heaviest weighing almost forty tons. The trezvon was an instrument of tone color but not of tonal pitch and was used to mark major occasions in Russian life and political history. In the score of Moussorgsky’s opera Boris Goudonov, the composer punctuates the famous coronation scene by calling for a trezvon on stage with the heaviest bell weighing fifteen tons. This scene, one of the most powerful in all of opera, emphasizes the brutal and primitive nature of Russian subjugation, the combination of unusually pitched bells with the more standard diatonic scale of Moussorgsky’s chorus and orchestra leading to a frenzied extra-musical climax as the echo of the bells (the concept of perezvon for those who remember the little dog in Karamazov) overwhelms and outlasts the sound of the singers and pit musicians and stands alone in a frightening paroxysm of prehistoric power.

Rachmaninoff, with his native sensibility to the iconography of the bell, fashioned an entire symphony based on Poe’s tour-de-force. As is the poem, this choral work is divided into four sections. The first, The Silver Sleigh Bells, is full of golden optimism in its depiction of childhood innocence reminiscent of Mahler’s Symphony #4, which also begins with sleigh bells. The second, The Mellow Wedding Bells, is scored for soprano solo and is very subdued, projecting a sober rather than an excited atmosphere and including a veiled reconstruction of the Dies Irae. The third section, The Loud Alarum Bells, is the devilish Presto (another similarity to the Mahler), while the last movement, The Mournful Iron Bells, is a sorrowful portrayal of a funeral with baritone solo and Rachmaninoff’s signature usage of the Day of Wrath theme. The Russian translation of the Poe makes no attempt to mimic the fabulous (and rare) combination of onomatopoeia and alliteration which is the essence of the poem, Rachmaninoff rather concentrating on the inexorably intertwined symbolism of the bells with the key events of everyday existence in the motherland.

The Philharmonia is a very good ensemble, supple but refined strings, clean, crisp woodwinds, highly polished brass. Ashkenazy led them through an emotive performance of this major choral symphony, premiered to the world in Philadelphia. The Presto was especially nimbly and impressively played by the orchestra. The combined choruses were able if not spectacular, while the soloists were presented in ascending order of competence. Ilya Levinsky was totally overmatched and often inaudible, Marina Shaguch was strong-voiced but not terribly convincing emotionally, Sergei Koptchak was superbly gloomy and powerful (I would love to hear his Boris). The genius of this composition is that it evokes the spiritual world of the bells without actually employing them as a battery of instruments. In fact, the only out of pitch intrusions during this performance were the unwelcome bells of cellular telephones.

This fine effort was preceded by two compositions premiered in Philadelphia on the same night. The Three Russian Songs received an intelligent (and extremely rare) airing, while an even more unusual gem graced the solo portion of the evening. Alexander Ghindin has made the original manuscript version of the Rach 4 his own and, unless one has had the pleasure of an acquaintance with the CD which he and Mr. Ashkenazy produced in Helsinki, this was the only opportunity to hear this fleshed-out original extension of a piece which was ultimately doomed to failure. Rachmaninoff, like Bruckner, was prone to both self-image problems and bad advice, and so the final performing version of this piece is significantly less exciting than this visceral prototype. All involved exhibited a solid gusto in presenting this rarity and we all of us felt the better for the opportunity to be in attendance.

Day Two: Philadelphia Story

What is unique to Rachmaninoff is his recorded legacy. He is the only significant composer to leave a personal, complete set of his symphonies and concerti reproduced in warmly acceptable sound. The four concerti and the Paganini were all performed by the composer with the fabulous Philadelphians and Rachmaninoff also conducted the three symphonies with his favorite band. Even the Symphonic Dances were dedicated to Eugene Ormandy (who shares the podium duties with Stokowski, when the orchestra accompanies Rachmaninoff at the piano, in these marvelous aural documents) and the Paganini Rhapsody featured this evening was yet another major work given its world premiere in the City of Brotherly Love. The preservation of these authentic performances as a body is one of the greatest achievements in American recording history.

The downside to having these remarkable versions readily available is that they set an inordinately high standard for contemporary soloists. This summer at Caramoor, I found myself consciously comparing the performance of Helene Grimaud in the 2nd Concerto with that of the composer. Fortunately for us all, her rendition was superb and in many ways the equal of the original. But realistically, not all efforts will be able to measure up to the athletics of the man who many believe to be the most accomplished pianist of the 20th century (and not just in his own particular repertoire). This night there was little danger of confusing the pianism of Stephen Hough with that of the composer, as the current soloist has a very different conception of the work as a whole. This very slow and quiet reading was engineered to feature the qualities of the piece as variations, each section framed by small moments of silence. The Phil had a little trouble sustaining some of the elongated melodic lines and some entrances were decidedly premature, but Mr. Hough was brilliantly sailing along, reveling in the beauties of newly revealed lyricism. We were all enjoying this aristocratically thoughtful approach and anticipated a glorious 18th variation, which was set up superbly by the unhurried approach to the whole. However, Mr. Hough chose this one and only moment to flub his notes (his worst nightmare come to life), misplaying that most famous of Rachmaninoff moments and evoking many winces in the crowd. Like an Olympic figure skater who falls on the ice, his months and months of preparation led only to minor disaster. But he made an excellent recovery and the magnificently restrained tension of the Philharmonia violins’ reprise of the melody saved the day. Mr. Hough’s overall artistry and playful ending left a very fine impression in the ear.

Comparing Ashkenazy’s phrasing to that of the composer is illuminating. The main theme of the first movement of theThird Symphony (world premiered, well, you know where) was expansively constructed by Rachmaninoff the conductor as an organic statement with a decidedly exaggerated swell and delicious hesitation, but the “modern” method of performing this material was invented almost immediately thereafter by Ormandy, whose self-consciousness did not allow him to plumb the depths of genuine emotion, leaving him free only to inhabit and refine a sweet but superficial realm of technique. The resulting phraseology is rhythmically precise but emotionally diluted. With all of the interest in how the music of Mozart or Beethoven was supposed to sound in its early days, it is sobering to realize that very few contemporary conductors have the inner strength and integrity needed to defy convention and follow the recorded examples of 20th century composers who left very specific clues on discs and cylinders as to what their intentions actually were (Ravel being the most extreme example). I had hoped that Mr. A’s Russian heritage might propel him to make The Great Leap Backward to the aesthetics of the composer, but this was simply not to be. However, his reading of the symphony as a whole was masterful, the second movement especially well constructed and executed, as had been the opening Isle of the Dead. After those dreadful concerts by Gergiev and the Kirov last month, these highly polished performances were a welcome tonic.

Day Three: Down and Out in Beverly Hills

This particular festival offers a disproportionate amount of material which Rachmaninoff composed after leaving Russia in 1917. The Piano Concerto # 4, Symphony # 3 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini all belong to this period as does the last major composition written in New York before ill health convinced the composer to spend his last days in the warm California sun. The Symphonic Dances provide a terza rima cohesion for the three Philharmonia programs as they quote generously from both the Third Symphony and The Bells. Here we find the craftsman at the end of his life eschewing his rather overstuffed romantic orchestration for a positively dietetic singularity of instrumentation reminiscent of his Los Angeles neighbor Stravinsky (cf. the prominent solo for alto saxophone). It is interesting to speculate whether Rachmaninoff would have continued along a neoclassical path had not illness taken its toll, but, in California, he really only concerned himself with editing and revision (most notably the Piano Concerto # 4). Although neither Mikhail Pletnev, the announced soloist for the Third Piano Concerto, nor I were able to attend this concert, I am sure that last minute replacement Garrick Ohlsson combined with this excellent orchestra to dazzle and impress the crowd which was originally scheduled for opening night 2001 at Lincoln Center (the diminutive Ashkenazy might have considered conducting this piece from the piano, but I don’t believe that the players in the back rows would have been able to see him).

All summer long, I looked forward to these particular evenings and what occurred instead was the horrible shock of seeing my Lincoln Center barricaded and guarded by uniformed police. But now, in a new year, the joy of experiencing the Philharmonia doing just what they had originally announced that they would do, makes all of us in New York realize that the worst is over and the best (in the form of an annual contract for these wonderful musicians to appear at Avery Fisher Hall) is yet to come.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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