Saturday, May 1, 2010

In review--Who's Afraid of Rachmaninoff?

London Symphony Orchestra Live
Valery Gergiev (Conductor)
Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2

Russian Late-Romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninoff composed music for listeners with strong hearts and the ability to run the gamut of emotions within the course of a single symphony or concerto, as in Piano Concerto No. 3, for example. While the movie, Shine gave the impression that a musician dealing with an emotional imbalance (that includes a lot of musicians), would suffer insanity performing Rachmaninoff’s technically and emotionally-challenging music, I believe the movie’s sentiment gave the wrong impression. While Rachmaninoff couldn’t be called an average man by any stretch, he also did not spend his time in a sanatorium and he composed music that excited plenty of sane people. So why would his compositions drive anyone over the edge?

On the contrary I find the classical works of Russian composers (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, etc), emotionally stimulating and invigorating. The piano concerto mentioned earlier has lifted me out of a funk more times than not and it has bolstered my flagging spirit when needed most. The one thing that the movie Shine did get right, is that faint of heart musicians who can’t commit to taking the turbulent, yet stunning journey that Rachmaninoff offers or who don’t have the mastery to tackle these brutal (from the pianist point of view) musical challenges shouldn’t be playing this work in the first place. And when I do see advertisements for an upcoming concert featuring the works of Rachmaninoff, most often Piano Concerto No. 2 or No. 3, the touring pianists represent the crème of the virtuoso crop. Some of them are musical elders and some up and coming child prodigies.

London Symphony Orchestra led by Russian conductor Valery Gergiev makes the right decision in bringing us a live performance of Rachmaninoff’s second symphony. The dynamic symphony opens with swooping and soaring strings and powerful horn passages takes listeners on an emotional superhighway. Sweet and romantic passages (reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s ballets), alternate with bold statements. Lyrical strings sweep up listeners into an almost sentimental place. Think those old American classic movies where the guy gets the girl and the orchestral strings launch into a sweeping gesture as the screen fades to black.

The second movement Allegro molto reminds me of Prokofiev’s frantic style and I’m thinking of one piano concerto in particular. I’m also reminded of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, first movement. The musical passages move by so quickly that it all seems like a blur. The music feels heavy on the bass and horns, though never ponderous. The flutes and strings lighten the mood with flourishes that almost seem to be butting into the conversation between the horns and a vibraphone. Then we have the wall of strings that perform the central melody. It’s hard to digest and assimilate all of these musical moods and vibrant colors. And even to write a review, I had to research the composer and listen to these movements several times.

The third movement switches to sweet lyrical with a solo clarinet (at the beginning), performing the main melody and strings building tension quietly in the background. The clarinetist Andrew Marriner plays with subdued passion and plenty of pathos that I almost feel like crying. Rachmaninoff pulled out all of the stops on this stunningly beautiful movement and I would attend a symphony concert even to hear this single movement. The instruments perform in perfect balance from the basses to the piccolo and violins. And the movement itself ends where it begins with the main melodic theme taking the listeners in a full circle.

The fourth movement starts off with a bang and reminds me again of American movie music. The Russian composer makes good use of the horns again and the timpani which takes on a character of its own. The main theme sounds slightly Arabic played on woodwinds and engulfed by a wall of frolicking strings. The music feels like pure joy and exhilaration. It’s loud, celebratory and declaratory similar to someone shouting from a mountain top. Certainly anyone listening to this movement must feel uplifted.

The liner notes describe the movement as, “It begins in a proud, boisterous style, and this is how the symphony will eventually end. In the course of the movement, however, there is room for many shades of feeling (Rachmaninoff signature), and also for one of the biggest of Rachmaninoff’s ‘big tunes,’ given at each of its two appearances to massed strings.”

Thanks to this symphony and other works by Russian classical composers, I find myself falling in love with Romantic Russian music. This music has everything, but the kitchen sink, a rainbow of emotions, plenty of colorful orchestration, rich chromatics and heartfelt melodic themes not easily forgotten during the course of a day. Okay so Rachmaninoff isn’t for the faint of heart or someone that detaches from their emotions, but for listeners willing to take the emotional ride, catharsis waits on the other side.

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