Once again we thank Robert R. Reilly for lending ears, pen and wit to ionarts - and congratulate his courage to face down all lovers of Rachmaninov.
Thursday night, Leonard Slatkin and the NSO were in top form for a largely Romantic evening of Edward Elgar and Sergei Rachmaninoff, interspersed with the Washington première of a new Piano Concerto, Extremity of Sky, by Melinda Wagner.
Slatkin excels at Elgar (recall the luminous performance of the Enigma Variations last year), so it is a surprise to realize that this was the NSO’s very first go at the Introduction and Allegro for String Quartet and String Orchestra. Slatkin began with a dreamy, gentle, rippling sort of approach, laying a lyrical base for the intensity that develops later. Despite the clogged drain potential of massed strings simulating a Baroque Concerto Grosso style (Handel), the performance was close to diaphanous, with a fleet kind of Mendelssohnian quality in parts of the latter half. Slatkin did not let emotion swamp the exquisite lyricism.
Wagner’s Concerto, composed in 2001, had a raucous opening movement, with winds gurgling and brass whooping, which kept the audience in suspense for the main theme to develop out of the opening motif, announced by Emanuel Ax at the piano. It was a long wait. After showing off the orchestral colors, enhanced by all sorts of percussion – bell tree, bongos, chimes, bell plates, water gong, wood blocks, etc. (we are so far into the computer age, I had not heard the ‘ding’ of typewriter return simulated in a long time) -- the show turned to rhythm, complete with notes of jazz. A more nocturnal mood descended and, then more syncopated rhythms, accentuated by sharp, orchestral snaps and crackles.
Tim Page, From NSO, Another Heaping Helping of Rachmaninoff (Washington Post, March 24)
In a small survey at half time, the consensus seemed that this was a.) a concerto lacking a theme, b.) better than most recently played new music (Ramírez, Sierra, Higdon, Schwantner) and c.) more tepidly received than plenty worse music has been.
S. Rachmaninov, Symphony No.2, Pletnev / RNO
Now, I will commit heresy. This is gorgeous music, but it is too gorgeous. It does not make me swoon so much as make me feel that I am supposed to be swooning. I find the epiphanies in Rachmaninoff to be emotionally flabby – more spine needed. He never descends into hysteria like the worst of Tchaikovsky, but neither does he achieve the depth nor reach the transcendent heights of, say, Sibelius, whom he occasionally sounds like. Sometimes, I think, with Rachmaninoff, the music is in service to the melody, rather than the melody being in service to the music. I understand how close he gets to greatness. I only wish he got there.