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Saving Rachmaninov for Last

If the National Symphony Orchestra had been interested in hiring an exciting, young conductor, along the lines of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel, it might have considered the man on the podium at this week's concerts. The Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov (pictured), then not even 30, succeeded Osmo Vänskä as the Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, a post he will relinquish this September to Donald Runnicles. (He reportedly cut back the amount of conducting he does with the BBCSSO, in order to spend more time with his young children back in Israel, which would make a possible connection to the NSO difficult anyway.) However, if the surprising program he led last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was any indication, it would have been anything but boring.

available at Amazon Jeu de cartes available at Amazon A Haunted Landscape available at Amazon Rach 3, Andsnes
Two relative oddities formed the first half, both to my surprise having already appeared on NSO concerts before, but certainly not with any regularity. Stravinsky's neoclassical ballet music for Jeu de cartes favors rhythmic vitality over sustained melodic interest. Although Volkov's beat was always crisp and clear, the cross-metrical relationships, simultaneously and between sections, did not always crystallize. There were some intriguing colors in the palette, diverting to the ear, especially the tongue-in-cheek quotations of other music including snippets of the overture to Rossini's Barber of Seville, but the result was strangely hollow. Much more satisfying was George Crumb's A Haunted Landscape, a fascinating tutorial on how to creep out your listener. After the activity of the Stravinsky, the large orchestra seemed frozen in stasis, as much of the piece is a tense ticking out of sounds from prepared piano, harp, and a zoological display of percussion. From time to time, a halo of strings shone in the darkness on shimmering triads, radiating up into the very high octaves, not always to pleasing effect. The reactionary listener had to sit through this memorable pairing to have his Rachmaninov, a risky programming strategy considering that those truly set in their ways could plan to arrive at intermission. Judging by the fullness of the crowd right from the start, no one did and all seemed generally pleased by the more adventurous portion of the concert, which was played with verve. As a recalcitrant Rachmaninov-averse person, I was tempted to leave at intermission and skip another performance of that composer's third piano concerto. But no, it was Leif Ove Andsnes at the keyboard, and experience has taught me that a great player -- Martha Argerich and Gabriela Montero, Anna Vinnitskaya -- can compel me to work through my gag reflex to this syrupy music, especially by playing it in as straightforward a way as possible.
Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO's Refreshingly Quirky Program Seals the Deal With Rachmaninoff (Washington Post, January 16)
Where Barry Douglas applied force and arm power to the third concerto with the Baltimore Symphony this summer, Andsnes moved through much of the work with speed. As technique goes, he made a blazing impression on his top-notch 1995 recording of the works (remastered for re-release a few years ago), made a few years after Andsnes had to take a sabbatical to realign his approach to playing because of intense shoulder pain. Volkov was on the money, following every shift of the transmission, but the orchestra did not do well as a whole in keeping in lockstep with his beat. The result was technically ferocious, not too treacly at the dangerously saccharine points, and a little disjointed. Even I would have been happy to hear one of the études-tableaux included on Andsnes' recording as an encore, but the warm ovation was apparently not long enough. This concert will be repeated tonight and Saturday evening (January 16 and 17, 8 pm).


Michael Pakaluk said...

Of course it's possible for music to be very lovely and at the same time profound, or for music like that to be performed as if it were merely lovely. I see the first virtue in Rach 3, and I didn't find the second fault in NSO's performance Friday night. A sign: the orchestra, not disjointed at all, played far better in the second half, apparently moved and inspired by Andsnes. (Can we grant that the professionals of the NSO are not soft treacly sentimentalists?) It seemed as if the cadenza in the first movement was what hooked everyone.

Charles T. Downey said...

That I enjoyed it at all, given my general allergic reaction to Rachmaninov, is a sign that it was performed well.