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Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony’s Tchaikovsky Mini Festival Opens with Manfred and Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto, Scott Davie, Piano

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Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House: 21 November 2012
The SSO plays this program again on Saturday 24 November 8pm

Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, opus 40
Scott Davie – piano
Tchaikovsky – Manfred Symphony, opus 58

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy – conductor

 

Rachmaninoff’s 4th Piano Concerto didn’t deserve to be cut. It seems to have received, in any version, the homeric epithet “Rachmaninoff’s least popular” since it wasn’t popular at the première (1927) and wasn’t much more loved after the revisions (1928 and 1941), but this is perhaps as much due to the immense and perennial popularity of the 2nd and 3rd as any intrinsic quality of the 4th, and the unpopular label seems now to be beginning to give the original version a little bit of underdog cred. The original longer version was only published in 2000, and this performance, according to the Sydney Symphony, is the first of this version in Australia. It is a fascinating case of audience expectations based on a composer’s perceived style and the composer worrying too much about pleasing them. Luckily the original was not lost. Even so it is not very long, though it does have a leisurely, operatic quality to its pacing, almost a Mahlerian pace, but with its drama turned in, more psychological and untidy than the other concerti, and so it is not as exciting as the other concerti. It does not have too solid a form holding it together, it doesn’t tell a ‘story’ with beginning middle and end as the others do more obviously. It is not linear, or at least it is taller than it is long with all those enormous, thick, rich chords which defy a simple analysis and the long runs of impossibly fast notes which are not exactly melodic — maybe more harmonic as they ring in that resonant Steinway piano — but the melodies in the piece with the exception of the opening one are more like fragments of leitmotif without staging to help explain them. The opening theme returns here and there but it seems odd in its return, almost an interruption of the of the pensive, contemplative revery of the music, almost like the sudden landing of an eagle, or an angel, or a strange golden shaft of light. But the 20th century romantic music doesn’t need a strict form since Rachmaninoff’s concept is not architectural or plastic. The wonderful thing about music is that you don’t have to worry whether it will stand up.

Rachmaninoff in his piano concerti seems to have wanted to marry the expressive and pianistic freedom and spontaneity of the prélude (and the other romantic solo piano genres) with the wide, monumental scale of the late romantic orchestra. I think he came closest with the Fourth. It is not a dialogue between orchestra and soloist in the traditional form, there are articulate exchanges, particularly involving the solo oboe (here beautifully expressed by Shefali Pryor) and violin (again beautifully played by Dean Olding) but these exchanges are ‘nonverbal’ rather than conversational. The orchestra is neither a pretty cushion to set off the virtuoso soloist — the cushiony sounds here were more caressing — nor background, though the orchestra is certainly not foreground either, it is more like a mirror in a dark room which shows as much imaginary as reflected imagery. The piano seems very isolated from the space around it in this piece, and the orchestra contributes to this rather than helping to place it. The piano at times does blend into the total orchestral sound, contributing texturally, but the piece is very different from the 20th century piano-as-symphonic-instrument as Stravinsky and others liked to use it in their orchestral colors; Rachmaninoff seems to blend the piano into the orchestral texture marvelously in a way Stravinsky never could or would, which is quite remarkable, since the piano can sound arbitrary at times in Stravinsky’s orchestra. Also, of course, this is definitely a concerto and not a symphony, there is some sense of thread to the solo part, even if Rachmaninoff’s melodies are not high-maintenance in that they don’t demand all one’s attention.

Scott Davie played beautifully, never in the least egoistically as he touched off the impossible solo parts, and it was partly this quality which points to this fascinating, mysterious and ineffable relationship between orchestra and soloist in the music. Vladimir Ashkenazy shared in this approach, with the orchestra in very fine form playing as a single beast with great precision, lucid and nimble in expression as a group, all giving the much soul. They had something of Davie’s understated quality, not trying to do too much to the music, rather letting it speak and in so doing played it all the more expressively. While letting the notes ring in a very subtle way with carefully hidden pedaling, Davie gave each of the notes in the long fast runs distinction enough through his very sensitive touch, not quite liquid, but flowing, more like an amorphous solid shaped to the music. Those enormous chords for whom ‘progression’ doesn’t seem quite the right term he played with understanding, a carrying volume on the fortissimos with a keen ear to the acoustic of the hall, rarely plodding them out and never a hint of clichéd Rachmaninovian melancholia. Rachmaninoff in this mature work seems to have picked up the odd bluesy chord from Gershwin and successfully married them into his Russian style without any eclectic seams, in fact here these harmonies to leaven the emotional color of the concerto. In Davie’s and Ashkenazy’s approach to this performance these more American aspects of the music became veiled without disappearing entirely. It was a very warm performance, showing Davie’s and Ashkenazy’s love of the music.

The orchestra, enlarged with harps, bass clarinet, etc., sounded in as fine form in Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. Ashkenazy, as is his wont with program music, abstracted or rather extracted the music, allowed it to speak for itself and let the Byronic program submerge, never going out of his way to reminded one of it, to the point one could listen to the still, if not more evocative, music without imposed imagery. This is always satisfying to hear in itself. The great crescendos were not painfully loud (except maybe a couple of notes where the trumpets got a little carried away) and were as sensitive to color and texture as dynamics. The subdued, quiet stretches were very sensitive and very well balanced. As interpretation, the performance didn’t have all the satisfying relish for the complexity of the music which the Rachmaninoff had, perhaps a case of overfamiliarity with the music, but still it would have been nice if Ashkenazy took advantage of the nimble group-expressiveness of his orchestra more to approach the music as if fresh. The performers seemed more striving for sonic perfection, which they came close to, with the fine balance and control, and maybe it is the fault of the music, but perhaps a little less control and more fresh naivety would have helped.

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