I used mostly my ears

a blog about music by Marc Haegeman


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Rachmaninoff at the BBC Proms

Sergei Rachmaninoff:
Piano concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30
Symphony #2 in E minor, Op. 27
Two Russian Orthodox Chants (“Thy tomb, O Saviour”, “Serene Light”)

Alexander Gavrylyuk, piano
Latvian Radio Choir
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard
Royal Albert Hall, London, 13 August 2017

London’s Royal Albert Hall can be a difficult venue to play. The Ukranian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk left an unforgettable impression two years ago in Rotterdam with a superb rendition of the very same Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 under Valery Gergiev. Gavrylyuk is a subtle artist and clearly knows how to dose his Rachmaninoff. His playing reveals enormous depth underneath the lightest of surfaces and refuses every bit of flash or showiness. The slower passages sound compellingly tender and introverted in his hands, standing out just as much, if not more, as the technical fireworks. This time, in his BBC Proms debut, Gavrylyuk still had me convinced by his approach, even if compared to his Rotterdam performance I felt that the Royal Albert Hall audience was somehow shortchanged and part of the emotional intent of his message simply vaporized within the immense space of the hall – as in the very opening of the Concerto and in the Intermezzo: Adagio. (I suspect people who followed the concert live on TV or on the radio were able to appreciate the range of his playing a lot more than we did).

But this is how it goes in live music-making and to be sure this was still a magnificent performance. The tonal beauty of Gavrylyuk’s piano, his grip on the work’s structure as well as his mercurial speed in some of the passages and the exciting, well-judged buildups held the audience spellbound. Thomas Dausgaard stuck very closely to his soloist – literally leaving him rarely out of sight – and ensured the most sympathetic accompaniment from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, including beautiful solo work from woodwinds and horns.

As an encore Gavrylyuk performed Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise in the transcription by Vladimir Horowitz. Again, the audience seemed mesmerized by his reflective pianism – one could hear a pin drop and it took a long time after the last note subsided before they erupted in applause.

Music of the Russian Orthodox Church has been a great influence on Rachmaninoff’s style and it was a fine idea to preface both major works of this evening by ancient monastic chants, performed by the Latvian Radio Choir. The likeness between Thy tomb, O Saviour and the opening theme of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto has been pointed out (although the composer denied any direct origins) and was well illustrated here. Preceding the Concerto members of the Latvian Radio Choir entered the hall processing down to the arena through the audience before disappearing under the stage.

The concert continued with Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, again introduced by an Orthodox chant Serene Light from the Latvians, effectively performed this time from the top Gallery. Conducting from memory, Dausgaard led an outstanding performance of the massive symphony, well-shaped and phrased throughout. Swift, lean and often vigorous, he kept things going, enough so in the first movement to justify the exposition repeat, while the dynamic divided strings of the BBC Scottish Symphony unraveled Rachmaninoff’s polyphonic textures to delight. This is a long work, but it didn’t feel this way here. I missed some of the darker colors in the brass and the bass strings sounded from where I was sitting slightly underwhelming. This was undoubtedly more a problem of the hall’s acoustics again. Solos were without exception beautifully performed, though, especially the clarinet solo from Yann Ghiro in the Adagio and the first horn. In short, a superbly rewarding Rachmaninoff evening at the Proms.

Copyright © 2017 Marc Haegeman


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Rachmaninoff in Rotterdam

Sergei Rachmaninoff:
Piano concerto #1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1 (1)
Piano concerto #2 in C minor, Op. 18 (2)
Piano concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30 (3)
Piano concerto #4 in G minor, Op. 40 (4)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (5)
Symphony #3 in A minor, Op. 44
Vladimir Tarnopolski: Tabula Russia

1 Alexei Volodin, piano
2 Dmitry Masleev, piano
3 Alexander Gavrylyuk, piano
4 Sergei Babayan, piano
5 Behzod Abduraimov, piano
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
The Doelen, Rotterdam, 11-12 September 2015

Valery Gergiev (© Hans van der Woerd)

Valery Gergiev (© Hans van der Woerd)

The 20th edition of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra Gergiev Festival was a celebration of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music. This remarkable annual music event in the Dutch city of Rotterdam may have shrunk throughout the years from the initial ten to a mere three days, the programming remains no less intense, the purpose no less noble. In three days, under the tireless artistic leadership of Valery Gergiev, a substantial chunk of Rachmaninoff’s musical legacy was revived. The foyer and corridors of Rotterdam’s music center The Doelen were decorated with large photographic banners of the composer and his family; there were talks and publications, all helping to bring the man back alive again. But above all there was his music: lots of it. You need to be maestro Gergiev to conduct all four Piano Concertos in a single day, accompanying four different soloists. He also found the energy to perform the three Symphonies, the Symphonic Dances and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Other concerts offered solo piano works, songs, and choral work. In fact, too much in too short a time to take it all in. With the kind invitation of the Rotterdam Philharmonic press department I attended three concerts – including the four Concertos, the Paganini Rhapsody, Symphony #3 and a world-premiere from the Russian avant-garde composer Vladimir Tarnopolski – and even that was something of a crash experience.

This Rachmaninoff festival was quite naturally a piano event, as much as an homage to the Russian piano School, still very much a treasure trove. While some pianists like Dmitry Masleev and Behzod Abduraimov are only at the start of their career, one couldn’t help feeling dazzled by the wealth of talent that Gergiev assembled. The appeal of Rachmaninoff’s music, especially his concertos, remains particularly strong judging by the sold out signs – this edition allegedly attracted 42% more visitors than last year – but also by the vivid, refreshing readings from often young artists heard here. To have five first-rate pianists in a row moreover offered a fantastic opportunity to compare. Hearing them individually would arguably have led to different appreciations, but this is how it goes with such an embarrassment of riches.

The four Piano Concertos were performed in two concerts on September 12, all accompanied by the Rotterdam Philharmonic under Gergiev. The afternoon concert featured Concerto #1 and #2. The First was the least appealing. Alexei Volodin (38) recreated the image of the traditional Soviet powerhouse virtuoso – bold, grand and powerful, yet not always that subtle. While the youthful bravura was hammered home with predictable effortlessness, the cantilena quality of the concerto remained underexposed and slower passages were drawn out rather than sung.

By contrast, one of the revelations of this Festival was Dmitry Masleev, this year’s first prize winner and gold medalist at the International Tchaikovsky Competition. Looking by his boyish appearance a lot younger than his 27 years, his playing demonstrated plenty of maturity and understanding. In effect, his rendition of the Second Piano Concerto, a work full of pitfalls, was wholly convincing and brimming with personal insights. Masleev shares the easy virtuosity of Volodin, but his pianism sounded a lot more nuanced and his natural expressivity and warmth suited the prominent lyricism of the piece. Nothing sounded overblown or forced; his flexibility of dynamics and phrasing seemed to serve the music only and never became a goal in itself. The first movement gained tremendous drive, going for a passionate climax, and leaving once subsided that feeling of melancholy Rachmaninoff had the secret of. The Adagio sostenuto further highlighted Masleev’s sensitivity to color and phrasing, his piano in an ideal balance with the orchestra. Both conductor and soloist kept the tempo flowing and the ending left one with a profound sense of loss again.

The encore, Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream was ideal. The rhythmical incisiveness and flow, the light textures without a hint of heaviness all pointed at a genuinely gifted artist. Dmitry Masleev is a pianist to look out for.

The evening concert began with Sergey Babayan’s performance of the Fourth Concerto. With his 50 years the oldest of the pianists, Armenian-American Babayan is a noted pedagogue who has his own academy at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He is also a fantastic pianist. The rarely heard Fourth is allegedly his favorite and there wasn’t any doubt he owns every bar of it. The outer movements had tremendous drive in his hands, at times in the finale pushing the orchestra out of the comfort zone; the Largo was particularly dark, fully supported by Gergiev. A fascinating work, no less, that doesn’t deserve its obscurity within Rachmaninoff’s legacy.

Alexander Gavrylyuk (© Anna Sanfeliu)

Alexander Gavrylyuk (© Anna Sanfeliu)

All were however eclipsed by Alexander Gavrylyuk’s electrifying performance of the magnificent Third Piano Concerto. Performances in this Festival were enthusiastically received by the audience, but the packed auditorium spontaneously exploded at the end of the D minor, and rightly so. From start to finish the playing of the Ukranian pianist held the public spellbound, gradually building up the tension and eventually generating enough energy to light up the whole of Rotterdam, harbor included. His astonishing grip on the work’s structure was magnified by constant tonal beauty, judicious tempi, enviable stamina, and immaculate timing – the buildups in the first and second movements were just as exciting and dramatic as the climaxes itself. The superbly shaped and effortless first-movement cadenza (the original long one) would in itself have been worth the price of admission. Like Masleev, Gavrylyuk owns the secret to find tremendous depth underneath the lightest of surfaces. The bravura passages were stunning, exhilarating feats but it was just as much in the slower, less spectacular passages that Gavrylyuk showed his true artistry. None of the aggravating mannerisms of Daniil Trifonov or the hard-fisted bashing of Denis Matsuev here – this was phenomenal, totally compelling playing, lucid and subtle, ready to take a place among the legendary accounts of Rachmaninoff’s Third. As an encore we were treated to a knockout performance of the Rhapsody on the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Liszt and Horowitz.

The concert of September 11, called “Memories of Russia”, paired two major Rachmaninoff works from the last period of his life – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Tashkent-born Behzod Abduraimov (25) as soloist, and the Third Symphony. Composed for the occasion at the request of Gergiev, a new piece by Vladimir Tarnopolski Tabula Russia was added as an opener.

Behzod Abduraimov stood out as a supreme colorist in the Paganini Rhapsody, a refined magician of the keyboard, shading the Rhapsody with an extraordinary array of dynamics and tones. Each section became a microcosm, cut razor-sharp, living and boasting plenty of wit. The famous 18th variation was breathtaking, begun simply by the piano but taken into full bloom by the orchestra. As Masleev he dug right into the music without ever falling into flashiness or brutality. There is quite obviously nothing Abduraimov cannot do, but in the end it was his musicality rather than his technical prowess which made the most impact. Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 19 #4 followed as delightful encore. Here’s another young talent to follow.

The success of these concertos wouldn’t have been possible without Gergiev and the Rotterdam Philharmonic of course. In spite of the dense programming the conductor appeared utterly engaged and able to transmit his belief in the scores to the players. He also created with all soloists a successful rapport – most were familiar faces, but Gavrylyuk had never performed with him before. Gergiev has been working with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra since 1988 and his tenure as the orchestra’s principal conductor from 1995 until 2008 has been hailed as a golden era. The Rotterdam musicians evidently know how to decipher Gergiev’s noisy, hand-fluttering conducting style and nobody is any longer surprised his toothpick batons guarantee that even the slightest inflections are registered. Occasional rough edges or slips in balance in the heat of the action weren’t entirely avoided, but in general this was magnificent and often thoroughly exciting playing. The orchestra boasts fine woodwinds and horns sections, yet it were the strings that left the strongest mark.

This was a very colorful if mostly darkish, sometimes impulsive and brazing Rachmaninoff: an approach that highlighted the beauty, inventiveness and modernity of much of the writing, especially in the later works. The performance of his final Symphony had all these characteristics in spades. Gergiev evidently knows how to dose the contrasting moods of Rachmaninoff’s inspiration in exile; movingly tender in the exposition of the themes, then blooming with passionate strokes and often verging on the edge of a maelstrom of much darker emotions. The first-movement exposition was repeated to superb effect. The final movement, brilliantly performed by the Rotterdam Philharmonic, gained tremendous momentum but also left a bittersweet taste.

Tarnopolski’s Tabula Russia was a powerful piece scored for a huge orchestra, including triple woodwinds and an extensive percussion section. Tapping into the specific sonority of the traditional Russian bells and liturgical chant, which also feature prominently in Rachmaninoff’s music, the music developed in several long crescendos, leading towards cacophonic interruptions and exploring some remarkable percussive effects before dying out. The overall mood was pretty morose, but then again the composer defined his work as metaphoric for the Russian conscience always in search of a new identity. An interesting work, and strongly performed, if arguably too opaque for immediate public appeal.

After the last concert Valery Gergiev expressed his gratitude and also a bit of relief that this Festival of his is still running after 20 years. May there be many more years to come!

Copyright © 2015, Marc Haegeman
First published on Classical Net (http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/haegeman/2015091112-rachmaninoff-rotterdam-gergiev.php)