Rach Packs 'Em In!

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Mon, 2017-10-30 02:43

Wellingtonians fair flocked to the Fowler Friday night to hear the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in an all-Rachmaninoff programme. They left more rapt with Rach than ever.

Proceedings began with a sound but soprano-less performance of Vocalise, immortalised by Anna Moffo, Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra in their 1964 recording. We had originally been promised a soprano for this rendering as well, but none materialised and the version Rach wrote with the melody given to the first violins was played, with beautiful wistfulness.

In his programme notes, conductor Edo de Waart said he always tried, with Rachmaninoff, not to get "overly sentimental" and "to let the music speak for itself," just as Rach himself did. For the first few moments of the Piano Concerto No. 3 I feared letting the music speak for itself might be tantamount to not letting it speak at all, so low-key were he and soloist Joyce Yang in their entrance. I could see myself writing a review in which the word "tepid" loomed large. Joyfully, this could have been a devilishly clever ruse on the part of conductor and pianist to lull us into low expectations. By the time major unleashings were required, as in the devastating elongated cadenza near the end of the first movement, they were there in abundance, shades of the Fabulous Ferocity of Freddy to which we had so recently been treated. By the end of the concerto, seasoned aficionadi were left dumbfounded at how de Waart, Yang and the Orchestra, working in astonishing symmetry, had extracted secrets from this trusty warhorse we hadn't quite noticed before. Here was a veritable revelation, inspiring almost the entire audience to their feet at its conclusion.

Symphonic Dances was Rachmaninoff's last composition. It seemed to be his way of saying, "See, I was right all along!" abounding as it does in allusions to his Symphony No. 1 (and other earlier works), written when he was 22. When that work was premiered three years later, it was under-rehearsed and conductor Alexander Glazunov was drunk. It was universally trashed. Composer César Cui said if there were a music conservatory in Hell, this was the sort of music its inmates would enjoy. Rachmaninoff plunged into depression, not composing again until psychotherapy had enabled him to recover his self-belief. By the end of his life, two symphonies and four concerti and countless other unassailable triumphs later, the verdict on Symphony No. 1 was changing, and Rach was clearly ready to claim vindication in Symphonic Dances. Maestro de Waart and the NZSO navigated their way through this diabolically tricky piece with irresistible alacrity, right to its electrifying, exultant conclusion. (The lush tones produced by Simon Brew on the alto saxophone in his first movement solo were beyond magical—an unforgettable stand-out.)

The word "stunning" might be over-used, but here I can't think of a more appropriate one—stunning is what this concert was. It plays in Christchurch tomorrow, Tuesday, October 31; Dunedin, Wednesday, November 1; Hamilton, Friday, November 3; and Auckland, Saturday November 4. Go! And prepare ye to be stunned!