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Tag: rachmaninoff

Revealing Rachmaninoff From Sonya Bach

If an all-Rachmaninoff album contains the immortal G Minor Prelude, that’s all you need to hear to figure out if the rest of it’s any good. How does pianist Sonya Bach tackle that piece on her new album, streaming at Spotify? With a staccato that’s forceful but short of a merciless attack on the “verse,” and then a luxuriant, languid approach to the “chorus” before the menace starts up again. Her big payoff delivers the expected chills; her outro is as devious as it should be. In a word, she nails it, in a fearlessly individualistic interpretation. After that, it would be a shock if the rest of the record was anything less than superb.

And it is. The centerpiece, the slightly condensed 1931 version of the Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, as well as a handful of preludes and the Six Moments Musicaux, are every bit as purposeful and inspired. The opening movement of the sonata is on the brisk and murky side, but that’s fine: this is turbulent, troubled music. And yet, when an anxious calm settles in, Bach works the bell-like dynamics magically, whether sepulchral or otherworldly and resonant.

The second movement is a vast, clear night as reflected on Rachmaninoff’s favorite Swiss lake, maybe. Much of the time Bach rides the pedal, letting those distant points of light shimmer for all they’re worth. Some Rachmaninoff fans may have issues with the conclusion, which again is on the fast side: Bach goes for overall disquiet rather than indulging in the occasional winking, romping phrase, and she maintains that steely focus. Vladimir Horowitz played it completely the opposite way; if the highest of the High Romantic is what you get out of this, cue up one of his versions instead.

The two remaining preludes here, in D and E flat, come from the composer’s first set, op. 2 (he would write another series later). The former is on the muted side, but that’s how Rachmaninoff himself played it, as a straightforward love ballad. The latter is also quiet and almost shockingly unvarnished: no over-the-top theatrics here, Bach using subtle rubato to let a quiet triumph unleash itself.

The Moments Musicaux are where Bach decides to revel more in the Romantic. No. 1 in B Minor has a persistent, wounded wintriness punctuated by judicious little crescendos: that little path through the snow toward the end will quietly break your heart.

No.2 in E flat minor has a similar starriness, a distant rather than intimate conversation but also a showcase for Bach’s spun-crystal legato. She gives a strikingly jaunty strut to parts of No.3 in B minor, when it’s not morose or achingly lyrical.

As she does a lot on this record, Bach takes a panoramic view of No.4 in E minor rather than making it a showcase for dramatic flourishes, beyond a slam-dunk coda. No.5 in D flat comes across as a distant precursor of the famous love theme from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Bach closes with an a resonantly regal take of No.6 in C.

Linguistically speaking, Bach is correct in using “Rachmaninov” as a transliteration from the Russian. However, in innumerable reviews of music by the king of Russian Romanticism over the years, this blog has gone with the anglicized double F too many times to backtrack and do endless rounds of copy-and-replace.

Obscure Treasures From the King of Dark, Wrenching, High Romantic Angst

In these perilous times, who better to spend an hour or so with than the king of High Romantic angst, Sergei Rachmaninoff? The repertoire is vast. There are so many obvious choices: one far less obvious collection is The Complete Rachmaninoff Works and Transcriptions for Piano and Violin, played with dynamic intensity by violinist Annelle Gregory and pianist Alexander Sinchuk and streaming at Spotify. Bridge Records put this out in 2017.

Although the iconic Russian composer only wrote three pieces (that we know of) for violin and piano, there are a grand total of seventeen other transcriptions of some of his most famous and haunting themes included here as well. The duo kick off the record with the first of his original three, the Romance in A minor. This waltz may be a student work, but it’s achingly gorgeous, laced with Asian tinges and occasional slashing chromatics.

His other two original arrangements, grouped together as Deux Morceaux de Salon, Op. 6, are an even more brooding Romance, with some of Gregory’s most richly resonant midrange playing, and a lickety-split Hungarian Dance with strangely bell-like piano.

Most of the other arrangements are either by the composer’s old violinist pal and occasional bandmate Fritz Kreisler, or by another violinist, Jascha Heifetz, a brilliant Rachmaninoff interpreter. Kreisler’s first is a stripped-down version of the famous, searching theme from the second movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 (the godfather of all angst-ridden piano pieces). It seems a little fast.

The most irresistibly outside-the-box of the Heifetz versions is the reinvention of the immortal (and crushingly venomous) G Minor Prelude Op. 23, No. 5 with a subdued drive that could almost be cumbia, The Prelude, Op. 23, No. 9 is furtive and insectilishly creepy – this is the one for your Halloween mixtape.

Heifetz’ reinventions continue with the Romance, Op. 21, No. 7 “It’s Peaceful Here,” a fond miniature, then the Romance, Op. 21, No. 9 “Melody” with some arrestingly fluttery doublestops from Gregory. Sinchuk’s belltone phrasing in the Etude-Tableau, Op. 33, No. 2 is sublime, while Gregory has a jaunty good time with the lilting Etude-Tableau, Op. 33, No. 7. And a final morsel, Oriental Sketch, flits by with only hints of the pentatonic scale.

Kreisler’s version of the Italian Polka, a rarity, has unexpected klezmerish flair; the Romance, Op. 38, No. 3 “Daisies” has more than a hint of a Mediterranean pastorale. And the iconic romantic theme, the 18th Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini comes into clearer focus in this stripped-down treatment.

Another Romance, Rachmaninoff’s song It Was in April – reinvented as an instrumental by Konstantin Mostras – is an attractively Spanish-tinged miniature. The duo give a practically Satie-esque plaintiveness but also quasi-operatic drama to the Mikhail Press arrangement of the Morceaux de Fantaisie, Op. 3, No. 5 “Serenade.” Press – a violinist and Rachmaninoff contemporary – also recasts the iconic Vocalise with as much cantabile quality as a voice could conjure.

The two give a nocturnal restraint to Mikhail Erdenko’s chart for the Prelude, Op. 23, No. 4. Nobody seems to know who came up with the one for the version of the “Oriental Romance” Op. 4, No. 4 but it’s one of the most anthemic and vividly imploring songs here (the title is misleading – there’s no discernible Asian reference).

Youtube Piano Sensation Tackles Iconic Music Outlawed by a Previous Fascist Regime

In the Soviet Union under Stalin, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music was illegal. In January 2021 under the lockdown, it’s also forbidden to play or invite an audience to his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his even more famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. So it makes sense to celebrate those two iconically poignant pieces this month, just to thumb our noses at the lockdowners. Pianist Anna Fedorova has an album of both, plus some preludes, with the St. Gallen Orchestra conducted by Modestas Pitrenas, streaming at Spotify.

While youtube page hits are notoriously inaccurate, there’s no question that her concert performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 has generated a lot of traffic. How does her version of these two somewhat less harrowing pieces compare? After the tumbling, torrential piano introduction to the Concerto No. 1, Pitrenas puts the orchestra on a very long leash, with a heartfelt, languid fluidity throughout the first movement. A delicate balance of cascades from Fedorova against mournful horns and orchestration develops, up to a restrained crescendo that many other ensembles love to rampage through. This crew make it work just as well under lower lights, even as. Fedorova’s torrents rise to gale force at the end.

The calm and suspense of the second movement are absolutely Lynchian, Fedorova often embracing a spaciousness that borders on lurid. So the hurried first part of the concluding movement is a surprise, less a romp than a scurry. Happily, a glistening nocturnal calm descends from there, although the ending also feels like a rush job in places.

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is also fast, beginning with a real strut. Paganini was legendary as a shredder and Fedorova seems determined to match that – although that sets up a noticeable contrast with the calmer passages, Pitrenas again opting for muted elegance, even in the famous love theme. Ultimately, this is classical music as entertainment. The stabbing, dancing quality of the seventh segment, and toward the end, is closer to Moussorgsky phantasmagoria – or Gogol Bordello – than, say, Chopin. This isn’t the most nuanced version of the suite ever recorded: “This album is like an express train,” Fedorova enthuses in the album liner notes. And how. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphis Orchestra put out a predictably much more lush version which those seeking greater luxuriance should check out.

Fedorova takes an energetically painterly approach to the preludes: she feels close to the composer and as a fellow expat clearly misses her home turf. She gives Op. 23 No. 1 a very understated gloom bordering on despondency. She sees Op. 32 No. 12 as a weary winter tableau, although she really rocks it out, getting unusual shimmer out of the belltone riffs, which is no small feat in what’s actually a far more haunting piece of music.

By contrast, Op. 32 No. 5: is all lilacs in springtime, a charming, spring-loaded performance. Her take of Op. 23 No. 2 has the same spirit, but with a regal, High Romantic angst. Some of these interpretations leave room for debate, but there’s no criticizing Fedorova’s passion for this music.

Fearlessly Individualistic, Counterintuitive Classical Hits From Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili

By oldschool record label standards, releasing an album of greatest hits from the classical canon guarantees yourself a pretty wide audience. The theory is that most of the crowd who will buy it doesn’t know anything beyond the standard repertoire and can’t differentiate between interpretations. From a critical perspective, this kind of album invites disaster, a minefield of crushing comparisons to every great artist who has recorded those same pieces over the past century. How does pianist Khatia Buniatishvili‘s new album Labyrinth – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the competition? Spoiler alert: this is a very individualistic record. And that’s a very good thing.

Consider the opening number, Deborah’s Theme, from the late, great Ennio Morricone’s score to the film Once Upon a Time in America. Buniatishvili plays it with such limpidness, such tenderness, such spaciousness that plenty of listeners could call it extreme.

Then she tackles Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1: so easy to play, but so brutally challenging to figure out rhythmically. Buniatishvili gives it just enough rubato to avoid falling into the trap so many other pianists have, taking the easy way out and turning it into a maudlin waltz. This is haunting, and revelatory, and augurs well for the rest of the record.

Other pianists approach Chopin’s E Minor Prelude with a nervous, scurrying attack. Buniatishvili lets it linger in a ineffable sadness before she chooses her escape route. Again, it’s an unorthodox path to take, but once again she validates her approach. The Ligeti etude Arc-en-ciel, one of the lesser-known works here gets a similar treatment, its belltone sonics exploding just when not expected to.

Not all of the rest of the record is this dark. Her piano-four-hands take of Bach’s Badinerie, from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 with Gvantsa Buniatishvili is a clenched-teeth romp. Yet the Air on the G String gets reinvented as a dirge: the first instinct is to laugh, but then again the choice to play it as Procol Harum actually works. She does the same with Scarlatti later on.

Buniatishvili builds baroque counterpoint in an increasingly crushing take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise: probably not what the composer envisioned, although there’s no arguing with the logic of her dynamic contrasts. She follows a deviously ragtimey arrangement of Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise with a haphazardly pummeling and then luxuriant version of Villa-Lobos’ Valsa da Dor, which also works in context.

The pairing of French baroque composer Francois Couperin’s circling, delicately ornamented Les Barricades Mystérieuses with a Bach ripoff of a famous Vivaldi theme is an even whiter shade of pale. Fans of 20th century repertoire are rewarded with richly lingering version of Part’s stark Pari Intervallo and a hauntingly enveloping performance of Philip Glass’ I’m Going to Make a Cake (from the film The Hours).

There’s also an opulent interpretation of the well-known Brahms Intermezzo, Liszt’s nocturnal Consolation (Pensée poétique) and another Bach piece, the brooding Adagio from the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. Oh yeah – there’s another famous thing here that clocks in at 4:33. Don’t let that lead you to believe that the album’s over yet. Stodgier classical music fans will hear this and dismiss much of it as punk rock. Let them. Their loss.

Fresh New Interpretations and Dazzling Technique from Conrad Tao at Carnegie Hall

Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, pianist Conrad Tao delivered a performance that offered a glimpse of an unselfconscious bon vivant sensibility along with daunting, world-class chops and and frequently astonishing insight into a very diverse program.

Tao played with such precision and and evenness of attack that even the night’s most staccato passages had fluidity. He leveraged the thrill factor with an old orchestral trick, beginning pieces or developing themes from a whispery pianissimo so that when things got loud, they seemed even louder. But what was most impressive is that he’d spent a lot of time under the hood with these works, figuring out exactly what makes them purr…or roar.

He opened with David Lang‘s Cage [sorry dude, titles are capitalized around here], a brisk study in single-note counterpoint and a shout-out to the famously silent American composer. Tao’s matter-of-factness and exactitude enhanced the music’s hypnotic feel: others might not have played this as a nocturne, and that’s their loss.

Others also definitely would not have played Bach’s Tocccata in F Sharp minor, BWV 910 with as much spaciousness, and dynamics, and probably with less or even none of the judicious rubato that Tao would return to again and again throughout the evening. But in so doing, he revealed the love ballad at the heart of the work, its fondly jubilant righthand melody cleverly cached amid the composer’s outwardly morphing phrases. Obviously, Bach on the piano is inevitably going to be iconoclastic: this was as rewarding to hear as it must have been fun to play, Tao gritting his teeth and raising his eyebrows as the web grew more complex.

Another work that got even more time under the microscope, as far as extracting every ambitious flicker of modernity, was Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableau in A minor, Op. 39, no. 2. Harmonically, it’s almost shockingly more adventurous than the rest of those relatively brief High Romantic iano pieces, most of which he wrote in the 1890s. This one dates from 1917, foreshadowing where he’d go with the Third Piano Concerto and its incessantly shapeshifting jazz-influenced rhythms and flourishes.

Tao delivered Julia Wolfe‘s Earring with acerbity and meticulous, often pointillistic rhythm. There seemed to be a man-versus-machine narrative prefiguring her John Henry suite; here, the machine grew more and more human, with a belltone poignancy. To close the first half of the evening, Tao returned to Lang for another 1990s composition, Wed, an increasingly plaintive, restless, frequently carrilonesque ballad written as a salute to a couple who got married while the bride lay dying in the hospital.

The centerpiece of the second half of the program was a breathtakingly expressive and fresh performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Counterintuitively, the high point was also the quietest section, awash in resonant, lingering phrases, the contrast even greater considering how fast Tao had scampered, if not particularly loudly, through the introduction. Lilting cantabile passages stood out amid minor-key unease and a dance that seemed not only rather Russian but almost phantasmagorical, as Tao worked the dynamics up and down, all the way through to a puckish coda.

There were a couple of misfires too. It’s one thing to program a study in spastic/resonant contrasts, but two? At least the Jason Eckart piece eventually wound down to a blackly suspenseful reflecting pool…but getting there, as the rhythm was epileptically jerked around any time the music could have coalesced, was torture. Which is not to say that ugly music can’t be meaningful or impactful, but this could have made its point in a tenth the time, never mind the Elliott Carter piece it was paired with. And the mawkishly inept freak-folk of Daniel Johnston is no less artless or awkward at Carnegie Hall than it would be on open mic night at any grungy, overpriced Bushwick beardo bar.

Karine Poghosyan Finds the Holy Grail with Russian Romantics at Carnegie Hall

“You’re not going to believe how funny this is,” Karine Poghosyan alluded as she lit into a puckishly rhythmic passage in La Semaine Grasse, from Igor Stravinsky’s solo piano arrangement of Petrouchka at Carnegie Hall last night. She didn’t say that in as many words, relating that information with her fingers and her face instead. By comparison, practically every other pianist’s version of the piece seemed at that moment to be impossibly tame.

On the surface, Poghosyan’s modus operandi is simple. Like a good jazz singer, she approaches the music line by line, sometimes teasing out the meaning, other times illuminating it with the pianistic equivalent of fifty thousand watts. Art for art’s sake is not Poghosyan’s thing. She’s all about narratives, and emotional content, and good jokes – even in the case of the evening’s program of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff works from her latest album, where humor is so often fleeting. Matching a buttery, perfectly articulated legato to a thunderous lefthand attack, Poghosyan reaffirmed the album’s fullblown angst, and glory and triumph. She’s found her holy grail with this repertoire.

Poghosyan wears her heart on her sleeve: her features are just as entertaining to watch as her fingers. When her eyes grew wide and the muscles of her jaw grew taut, that was a sign to hang on for dear life. That held especially true in the encore, a machinegunning romp through the lightning cascades and jackhammer intensity of Khachaturian’s Toccata, not to mention the most demanding, intricately woven staccato passages of the Stravinsky. But there was just as much rapturous, closed-eyed cantabile reverie (Poghosyan played the whole program from memory) in Rachmaninoff’s six Moments Musicaux, which she delivered as a contiguous suite.

Her approach underscored how these relatively early works comprise some of the composer’s most ravishingly beautiful, shapeshifting melodies. But Poghosyan was just as attuned to momentary glee or sudden stressors as longscale thematic development. A sotto voce strut and a couple of emphatic “Take THAT!” riffs stood out amid spacious, achingly anticipatory resonance, several tributaries of ripples that would eventually coalesce to rolling rivers of notes, and eerie proto-Satie close harmonies and chromatics. Her gentle, endearing take of Lilacs, Op. 21, No. 5 made considerable contrast, a rare carefree moment in the notoriously angst-ridden Rachmaninoff catalog.

She went deep into that with his Piano Sonata No. 2, spotlighting its persistent, unsettled quality. She really let the introduction breathe, taking her time, parsing the dichotomy between struggle and guarded optimism. Similarly, when the clearing finally came into view in the first movement, the effect was viscerally breathtaking. Others tend to interpret it as sentimental. To her, it seemed like genuine relief, knowing that the turbulence would return in full force, if balanced by moments of relative calm and even dancing ebullience.

Poghosyan’s precision throughout the daunting, icepick staccato of the trio of pieces from Petrouchka was astonishing. Other pianists with the virtuosity to play the Danse Russe tend to make a Punch and Judy show out of its relentless phantasmagoria. Generously employing the pedal, Poghosyan approached it as the grandest guignol imaginable, Stravinsky’s sardonic call-and-response notwithstanding. And her take of the first three movements of the Firebird was unselfconsciously revelatory: the famous symphonic hooks seemed practically muted amid the rest of the bustling, sometimes stampeding, often starkly distinct countermelodies.

The spectacle didn’t stop with the music. After big codas, Poghosyan didn’t throw her arms up quite as dramatically as she usually does, but she had her usual striking stagewear. This time, it was shimmery black slacks and a matching top for the first half, then after the intermission she switched to an ornate red gown. And she could have started a wholesale florist business with all the bouquets after the encore: in a world where people onstage and off are too often expected to behave sedately, this fan base didn’t hold anything back.

A Darkly Glorious, Poignant New Album of Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky and a Carnegie Hall Gig by Pianist Karine Poghosyan

It’s as validating for an audience or a critic to watch an artist move in a direction that maximizes that musicians’s talent, as it ultimately is for the artist. One ravishing example of an artist who followed her muse to a nirvana state is pianist Karine Poghosyan‘s new recording of Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky is streaming at Spotify. It’s repertoire she may not have been destined to play – but choosing that destiny was a stroke of brilliance. “If it doesn’t have a story, it doesn’t exist,” Poghosyan asserts, and she goes deep into the dynamics of some of the most challenging material in the Romantic repertoire for all the poignancy and exhilaration of those narratives. She’s playing the album release show on Nov 4 at 7:30 PM at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall; you can get in for $25.

She begins the record with Rachmaninoff’s six Moments Musicaux, Op. 16. In the first, Andantino in B Flat Minor, a suspenseful, subtle rubato permeates the nocturnal lustre, Poghosyan’s starry triplets in contrast with the steady undercurrent. Then she eases the rhythm for the plaintive, Satie-esque theme that follows. The blend of bittersweetness and tenderness is exquisite. What a way to open the album.

Poghosyan plays the rivulets and daunting cascades of No. 2 in E Flat Minor with a dramatic sway, then lets the spaces in between the somber notes of No. 3, Andante Cantabile in B Minor resonate equally, ramping up the misterioso factor. But counterintuitively, she takes a muted, furtively scampering approach to the rapidfire chromatics of No. 4, Presto in E Minor, first in the righthand and then the left: the exchange of power throughout the piece is magnetic in every sense of the word.

With its understated wave motion, No. 5, Adagio Sostenuto in D Flat Major comes across as a genial canal boat theme – or Volga riverside promenade, maybe. The last in the series, Maestoso in C Major is clearly a triumphant love song, as Poghosyan sees it, rich with understatement and siklen legato, resisting any temptation to go for bombast as others might.

All that is a setup for the daunting virtuosity of Stravinsky’s own piano arrangement of three movements from Petrouchka, a Poghosyan concert favorite. The first, the Danse Russe, has a stunningly fleet-fingered pointillism: it’ balletesque in the best sense. Again, Poghosyan’s use of space to set up the phantasmagoria and funhouse-mirror disquiet of Chez Petrouchka is stunning, particularly as it sets the stage for her richly resonant approach as the music grows more lush and enveloping. So the return to pinpoint precision in La Semaine Grasse is a stark contrast – but an unexpectedly wry one. What a ridiculously funny romp some of this music is: Poghosyan can’t resist a good joke when she can find it.

As she also likes to do, she pulls out a rare gem: Rachmaninoff’s Lilacs, Op. 21, No. 5, a rare carefree moment from someone best known for his most haunting works. A growing storm lingers as Poghosyan makes her way cautiously into his Piano Sonata No. 2 in B Flat Minor, then turning the drama and angst loose before spaciously backing away again. The relative calm Poghosyan brings to the rest of the first movement is a rarity: was it hard for her to resist rampaging through it, or is this (more likely) the case of someone determined to create a full portrait rather than simply going for adrenaline?

Gentle hesitancy slowly moves toward joy in the similarly restrained second movement before Rachmaninoff darkens the skies: that grimly gorgeous theme is one of the album’s most striking passages. In the final movement, Poghosyan maintains the understatement, especially when the most Stravinsky-esque, distantly carnivalesque melodies appear.

Poghosyan returns to Stavinsky to close the album with the Agosti arrangement of three movements from the Firebird Suite: a glittering, gleefully precise tour of the carnivalesque Dance Infernale, a steady, portentous Berceuse and an almost allusively regal Finale.

Whatever slight imperfection might exist in this rich interpretation of some of the most difficult music in the repertoire disappears in light of Pogosyan’s erudite, richly insightful, crepuscularly thrilling interpretations. Fans of Vladimir Horowitz’s virtuosically passionate approach to this music will find Poghosyan’s own individualistic take on it to be equally rewarding.

Counterintuitive, Macabre Rachmaninoff?

The live recording of Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Rachmaninoiff’s legendary Symphony No. 1 is hardly a definitive performance…but the album’s opening number is, What a treat it was to discover their version of The Isle of the Dead, streaming at Spotify. It’s astonishingly energetic, dynamic and vivid. Most orchestras play it very close to the vest, as they might do with, say, Death and Transfiguration. Yet Jurowski’s take on it is a revelation, unfolding layer upon layer of color so often subsumed in moody armospherics in interpretations by other ensembles.

You can almost feel the strain and the reach of the ferryman’s oars as the low strings dig into the macabre opening theme, in restless 5/4 time. The swirl of the woodwinds as the sway rises to a stormy crescendo is just as sharply defined. Likewise, the descent to distant bass and a lone horn in the distance after the deluge subsides.

There’s great timbral richness as the brass joinis the cellos in the angst-ridden, stairstepping crescendo of the second movement. The subtle echo effects of cellos against a lone horn amid the waves are just as meticulously focused. Taken as an integral work, this is a clinic in how to build a haunting tableau from the simplest ideas: Twin Peaks, Russian style, 1909

For something approaching the ur-text of the Symphony No. 1, try Leonard Slatkin’s recording with the St. Louis Symphony. That one’s a confident tour of the young composer’s brash, sometimes uproariously funny symphonic debut  – which was played exactly once, viciously panned by the critics and only resurrected after the composer’s death. This one’s a little ragged in places – the chase scene in the first movement, for instance – and yet, there’s a certain charm and poignancy in that all-too-human frailty. And it’s an audacious piece of music: name another symphony where the composer uses a slur as a main theme! Diehard Rachmaninovians will probably want to hear this as a point of comparison, but there are other options for those seeking to relish it for the first time.

The New York Philharmonic End the Season with a Turbulent, Epic Coda

In his Brooklyn debut this past evening in Prospect Park, conductor Jaap van Zweden led the New York Philharmonic through an electric, kaleidoscopically detailed, unselfconsciously transcendent version of Rachmaminoff’s Symphony No. 2. It’s impossible to think of a better way to introduce the orchestra to those across the lawn who either hadn’t seen the group before, or couldn’t afford to visit them at their Lincoln Center home base.

There’s a point in the second movement where a bassoon solo signals the symphony’s first bellicose theme. But van Zweden didn’t pull back the string section gratuitously. Resolute yet rather mysterious, it burbled just above the waterline amid a vast, extremely uneasy tide. The Red Sea didn’t part all the way: the orchestra gave this wanderer just enough room to make his way through without much stress. There were innumerable other moments like that throughout the rest of the evening.

The greatest composers like to keep orchestras on their toes and give audiences plenty of bang for their buck along with jokes and insider references for the diehards. Gloomy as most of it is, why is this symphony one of the most popular in the entire repertoire,? For all of those reasons. Rachmaninoff griped to his inner circle about how long it took him to orchestrate it, but as the dominoes fell one by one, the mosaic this orchestra created with it was viscerally breathtaking, in both scope and substance.

It’s a familiar theme in Rachmaninoff: the composer writing his way out of a very dark headspace. The opening movement bristled with a relentless, downcast intensity, livened with endlessly clever exchanges of riffs and a thematic interweave that finally paid off mightily, a wall of pictures at an exhibition, in the concluding movement. In between, the heartbreak of the third movement contrasted mightily with the anger of the fourth, which came across with more aggression than most orchestras tend to give it.

And that ho-ho-ho intro to the last movement? That’s an inside joke, one that may have completely evaded audiences for decades. It’s a reference to the opening motif of his Symphony No. 1, which was infamously performed only once in his lifetime – to a withering critical reaction that devastated him and left him unable to composer for three full years. After dazzling the crowd for the better part of an hour, Symphony No. 2 becomes Rachmaninoff thumbing his nose at anyone who thought he could never pull it off. For the record, the Rachmaninoff 1 is a frequently audacious work, which, had the composer decided to resurrect it during his lifetime, probably would have become a part of the classical canon much earlier than it did.

In front of the orchestra, van Zweden tends to bounce, but not a lot, as if he’s standing on a heavy truck spring that gives way ever so slightly As much strurm ung drang as this piece has, he didn’t exert himself much except when there was a jewel of a detail that had to be pulled from the storm in a split second. And when that happened, van Zweden seized those moments, one by one, whether fluttery ornamentation from the violins after the cartoonish laughter of the final movement, or a suddenly stark, martial stacccato from the cellos in the third. For all the calm in his body language, he’s exceptionally communicative with the orchestra. The audience afterward were marveling about the level of detail, range of dynamics and sheer freshness he and the orchestra had brought to a familiar piece they’d played several times just a few months ago.

There was other material on the bill: operatic buffoonery and jaunty orchestrated bluegrass, along with a couple of miniatures – one unexpectedly close to horizontal music, and the other very baroque – by a pair of gradeschoolers mentored in the orchestra’s Very Young Composers program.

But all that was just a warmup for the crowning jewel in a year that’s seen the ensemble revitalized like never before in this century. Not to be disrespectful to Alan Gilbert, a gifted conductor who in many ways set the scene for van Zweden to take the reins, but over the course of the past season, the Philharmonic’s programming and performances have been more ambitious and relevant than ever. What a great feeling it is to be excited about New York”s hometown orchestra again.

Hauntingly Triumphant Klezmer and Classical Sounds Fill Central Park

This past evening Central Park was ablaze with music that stretched back as far as several thousand years, if you believe the liturgy. Either way, the best of those ancient Jewish cantorial melodies were as catchy and anthemic as they were darkly rustic, which is the point. The choir isn’t likely to get up to full steam if the tunes aren’t there.

Most of those tunes were sung by the New York Cantors, the trio of  Azi SchwartzYanky Lemmer and Netanel Hershtik flanked by a robust crew of backup singers. This time, rather than inciting a friendly cantorial smackdown like they did two years ago, very memorably, their Central Park Summerstage performance was all about harmony and tradeoffs. At their best, they were spectacular. Hershtik’s operatic baritone soared and implored, echoed by Schwartz from time to time as hometown hero Lemmer gave each a wide berth and stayed subtle and low-key for the most part.

In its heyday, cantorial music was as competitive and thrilling a sport as African-American gospel. This show was more socialist than pugilist, enhanced by the lush, velvety backdrop of a chamber orchestra including but not limited to Michael Winograd and Dmitri Slepovitch on reeds and Ljova Zhurbin on viola.

But as impassioned as the cantors were, the highlight of the night was trumpeter Frank London‘s brand-new suite Freylekhs – A Klezmer Fantasy for Orchestra and Trumpet. He gave it a gorgeous, Middle Eastern-tinged, modal solo intro, then the group entered with a supple pulse, then shifted from a stately minor key sway to a bit of a Klezmatics-style romp (London co-founded that legendary band) and an unexpectedly sweeping, majestic interlude with vivid echoes of Egyptian trailblazer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. They wound it up with an even punchier trumpet solo and a triumphant coda.

There was other music on the bill, but that didn’t measure up: centuries-old ngunim don’t translate easily to a cloying, cliched 80s-style power ballad format. And as if we haven’t already heard enough about the death of the corporate record industry, the night’s emcee announced that Universal Music’s big signing this year is…drumroll…Shulem, a twentysomething Israeli crooner whose seven-digit youtube pageviews may or may not be authentic. His voice is definitely the real deal: the guy can belt with anyone, and held the crowd’s attention with a lustrous contemporary classical ode to his home turf. But even a Yiddish second verse couldn’t redeem God Bless America from its association with Bush-era torture, murder and police state terror, both here and abroad.

Further to the north, it was redemptive to be able to catch the New York Philharmonic playing the final movements of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 (which they’re reprising at 8 PM on Friday night in Prospect Park: you should go). Binoculars would have been a good idea: the Philharmonic in Central Park is probably the year’s biggest event there. With the array of speaker towers extending south of the stage, it was like watching Rachmaninoff at the Isle of Wight, loudly amplfified. But those of us in the back needed that sonic boost. And the music was everything it should be: delicate in the delicate parts, robust when needed, which was most of the time. The melancholy third movement seemed infused with some righteous anger; then again, that could have been the amplification. Maestro Jaap van Zweden brought his usual meticulousness to the music: he has transformed this orchestra like no other conductor in recent memory.