Review: The Philharmonic Reveals the Rhetoric of Rachmaninoff | Modern Society of USA

Review: The Philharmonic Reveals the Rhetoric of Rachmaninoff

Review: The Philharmonic Reveals the Rhetoric of Rachmaninoff

The subscription-series format long commonplace at American orchestras, with a weekly offering of standard repertory, is looking a little, well, standard.

Take the program Jaap van Zweden led with the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall on Wednesday. There was no particular musical connection or thematic thread linking the two staples performed: Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony.

Yet, on its own terms, this was an exceptional concert. The brilliant pianist Yefim Bronfman was the soloist in a pristine, elegant account of Beethoven’s youthful concerto. And for Philharmonic regulars trying to glean what special qualities Mr. van Zweden may be bringing to the orchestra in his inaugural season as its music director, the compelling performance he led of Rachmaninoff’s rhapsodic symphony revealed new dimensions of his artistry.

I get impatient with the hourlong piece, which for all its lyrical richness can seem long-winded. During whole stretches, this plushly orchestrated symphony strikes me as a Rachmaninoff piano concerto that’s missing the solo part. When the orchestra goes through endless manipulations of some theme, I find myself wanting a pianist to break in and take charge with a cascade of steely chords.

In trying to bring freshness to standard repertory works, Mr. van Zweden has a tendency to overdo things. With his insightful account of this symphony, though, he did almost the opposite. He brought out inner details, revealing the rhetoric of the piece — that is, the way phrases are written like sentences, grouped into paragraphs, even when the music seems on the surface to run on with overextended elaborations of themes.

Rachmaninoff was in his mid-30s when he wrote the Second Symphony, first performed in 1908, and still felt bruised by the hostile reaction to his First a decade earlier. The slow Largo section that opens the piece unfolded like the introduction to an essay, with themes almost presented for consideration. The orchestral sound is rich and thick, with passages played over dark, sustained bass tones. Yet the performance had remarkable lucidity and breadth, which continued as the Largo segued into the restless, expansive Allegro main section of the first movement.

Mr. van Zweden drew crisp, snappy playing from the orchestra in the exuberant, scherzo-like second movement. The intriguing way he began the slow movement made it seem like it starts in the middle of some long melodic line. His approach set up the Adagio’s true theme, a wistful, elegiac melody for solo clarinet, played gorgeously by Anthony McGill, the Philharmonic’s principal clarinet. The account of the finale captured all its headlong energy, music at once festive and frenzied.

Mr. Bronfman has made news in recent years at the Philharmonic in the premieres of daunting concertos written for him by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg. There was plenty of sparkling passagework in his playing of Beethoven’s ebullient Second Concerto. But he seemed intent on highlighting the music’s reflective passages and poetic flights, especially in his dreamy account of the slow movement.

It was a pleasure to hear such a lithe and refined account of Beethoven’s bracing concerto. Why it made sense to pair it with the Rachmaninoff symphony, though, I cannot say.

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