Two monuments of Russian music dominate the opening concert for 2016-17. On the first half, we have the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). Composed in 1909, the work was at first deemed so fearsome that only the composer (widely considered the greatest pianist of his time) took it on; and when his spiritual heir Vladimir Horowitz started playing it in the 1920s, that hardly diminished its reputation as the Everest of piano concertos. Still, like Everest, it has been approached by new generations of pianists with ever-increasing technical command. As a result, climbing the Rachmaninoff Third has become more and more common—and nowadays, it is one of the most often-performed concertos in the repertoire.
This increased familiarity has shifted our focus in listening: we’re no longer impressed simply that a pianist can play the work but rather with how he or she does so. That is, now that many teenagers can knock the concerto off, the sheer technical challenge of the piece (imposing as it is) gives way to its subtler beauties. In a way, the experiences of tonight’s soloist, Garrick Ohlsson, reflect that shift in attention. Garrick has been playing the work for more than half a century. He first learned it at the age of 15, and it was part of his repertoire when he won the prestigious Busoni prize in 1966, at the age of 18. But while that competition performance was dazzling (you can hear it on CD), Garrick feels today that he really couldn’t see the forest for the trees as a youngster. It took years for the concerto to “turn into music.”
In particular, he says, “you get much more attuned to the large structure with experience.” Structure, in this case, has an extended meaning. As we move from its deceptively simple opening to what Garrick calls its “triumphal, bittersweet, glorious ending,” tempo relationships and long-range pacing are as much a part of the music’s structure as its thematic content. “Like most Rachmaninoff, this piece is all about transitions. It doesn’t stay in one architectonic tempo.” This, in turn, provides the greatest challenge for the conductor: “the thing that makes this hard,” says Larry Loh, “is that there are so many changes in tempo, and the orchestra and conductor have to be completely locked in with the soloist.”
If the beginning of the Rachmaninoff coaxes you into the music through understatement, the start of the Symphony No. 4 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) works in precisely the opposite way. The Fourth features one of the most dramatic openings in the repertoire—and if what Larry calls its “bold and terrifying” demeanor summons up memories of the Beethoven Fifth, that’s not accidental. Tchaikovsky resisted assigning specific programmatic meanings to his symphonies (although he did relent, at times, under pressure), but it’s hard not to see the Fourth as a representation of Tchaikovsky’s struggle with fate. And indeed, the Fourth was written in 1887-88, under the shadow of acute personal upheaval. Or, more accurately, it was written under the shadow of two acute personal upheavals—two very different kinds of relationship with two very different women. On the one hand, there was his odd relationship with Antonia Miliukova, a former student who developed an overwhelming crush on her teacher. Although Tchaikovsky was a homosexual, he agreed to marriage—a relationship that quickly crashed and left Tchaikovsky in a despair so deep that for a while he couldn’t compose. On the other hand, there was his equally odd relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow of a railroad magnate. Von Meck was Tchaikovsky’s patron for years, starting in 1877—and in their voluminous correspondence, she served as perhaps his closest confidante. But the relationship, while emotional as well as financial, was grounded in the explicit condition that they never meet. Tchaikovsky dedicated his Fourth to her, and it’s probable that it was her friendship that helped him recover from his marriage.
In any case, it’s not hard to hear the despair that fuels this symphony. The first movement, the longest of the four, is as intense as anything Tchaikovsky ever wrote. Although it’s written in 9/8, Larry hears it as a “macabre waltz crippled by dissonances and syncopations that provide rhythmic and harmonic tension.” The middle two movements, far lighter in spirit, provide what Larry calls a “necessary relief,” but it’s not hard to sense a certain despondency in the second and, perhaps, a trace of desperation in the balletic third, marked by its reliance on pizzicato strings. As for the finale: it starts with a bang (literally), quickly moving on to the popular folk tune “In the Field Stood a Birch Tree,” which—in a variety of guises—serves as the thematic meat of the movement. About two-thirds of the way through, the fate theme from the first movement returns—but is swept away by an exuberant close. Does the folksy spirit represent an escape—or is simply a kind of manic denial? “You don’t know how he’s really feeling,” Larry points out. But there’s no doubt that the finale blows you away.
With two such blockbusters on the program, something on the breezy side is necessary for the opener—and the Overture to Colas Breugnon by Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987) certainly serves the purpose. The opera, originally completed in 1938 (although later revised), is based on a novel by the once- popular Romain Rolland, and it recounts the triumph of a man of the people over a vicious feudal lord. But whatever the political seriousness of the opera itself, and whatever the shadows of the time it was written (one of the darker moments of Soviet history), the Overture is a delight in the manner of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture (also, coincidentally, written at a time of political persecution) with its sassy orchestration and what Larry calls its “quirky” rhythms. Once a popular staple, Colas has more or less disappeared from American concert programs—although, after tonight’s concert, we’re sure you’ll wonder why.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have comments or questions? Contact me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org