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Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 and Shostakovich Symphony No. 5: Philharmonia Orchestra, Gabriela Montero (piano), Benjamin Zander (conductor) Queen Elizabeth Hall. 26.09. 2006.(JPr)

 

There were about 3½ years between the composition of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony and the Piano Concerto No. 2 which comprised the first half of this concert. In March 1897, because of Alexander Glazunov’s failure to cope with the composer’s new musical language, the First Symphony was an abysmal failure. It sent Rachmaninov into a very serious bout of depression and he was unable to write any new music. There was not any improvement until he put himself in the hands of the Moscow physician Dr Nikolai Dahl, who with his patient under hypnosis kept repeating to him ‘You will begin to write your concerto... The concerto will be of outstanding quality...’ (my italics for reasons you will read later). It was a resounding success and in 1900, three years after his personal crisis began, Rachmaninov started working on the second piano concerto (that he dedicated to Nikolai Dahl). He gave the world première of the second movement and finale in December of that same year, and encouraged by the response this received on first hearing he was able to finish the first movement too. On 9 November 1901 the whole work was heard (with the composer as soloist) for the first time:it was a tremendous success then, and ever since has been a staple of the repertoire of the virtuoso pianist.

Rachmaninov combines a few hummable long arching melodies with a fiendishly difficult solo piano that requires a great bravura technique, then everything quietens down for the nocturne-like central movement that is almost Mahlerian, before stirring it all up for a hard-driven yet sparkling finale.

Gabriela Montero was the soloist and background information on both Ms Montero and Zander can be found in my recent review from Snape.  Within a few minutes of hearing Ms Montero's  Within a few minutes of hearing Ms Montero's playing it was clear that she had the flawless pianistic ability to realise a compelling account of the score. She was sensitively accompanied by Zander and the orchestra. I guess the music may hold a few secrets that were not revealed by such swift, youthful, and outstandingly flexible playing but even if the interpretation was just a little superficial we were all nevertheless made grateful for Dr Dahl’s advice: ‘You will begin to write … It will be of outstanding quality…’.

Ms Montero said before her encore that she considers herself as famous now for her improvisations as the black boots she wears on the concert platform. I guess this remark was aimed mainly at the cameras videoing her in this first half? Someone sang out a melody from Rhapsody in Blue and she played a musical development of this theme, not to my ears very different from the Bach and boogie-woogie of her improvisation on ‘Ode to Joy’ at Snape recently.

Again I have written before about the background to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. It was born of another failure this time to please Stalin in 1936 with Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which at that time was an international success. The young composer began to fear for his life, and waited every evening with his bags packed so that the secret police could take him away without disturbing his children. The police never did come in fact, and to a degree Shostakovich decided if you can’t beat them, then join them.

Shostakovich withdrew the Fourth Symphony and started to compose the Fifth giving it the subtitle, ‘An Artist's Practical Answer to Just Criticism’. He sought to reinstate himself through this work with the Politburo and this he achieved, because the first performance was a huge success. As Benjamin Zander confirmed in a short preamble to conducting the symphony that it is anything but cheerful: the first movement is dark and sad, the second is brittle and sarcastic, and the third is a deeply desolate outpouring of emotion. However it was only how it all ended that appeared important to the authorities, and the long last movement, as they understood it, climaxed in a paean of praise to Soviet Socialism. However, when the final ‘march’ is played at the tempo indicated in the original score, the ‘joyful celebration’ heard at the incorrect tempo turns into a scream of pain, a crying out against oppression. This was Shostakovich's hidden message to the world, a real musical Da Vinci Code, he gave them what the rulers wanted, but retained a personal freedom to encode in the work a subversive message for those who could understand it.

Zander continued with the story of the great Rumanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache who wrote a letter to Shostakovich from Switzerland asking the question ‘Is the tempo marking 176 to the quaver correct at the end of the Fifth Symphony?' He received a postcard from Moscow, unsigned, but on it was a single word: `Correct.' Shostakovich still lived in fear that if the true meaning of the music was revealed he would be shot but as Zander concluded; ‘Now we can tell the truth.’ Indeed Shostakovich’s own comment on this ending as reported by Solomon Volkov (in Testimony) was: ‘I think it's clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under a threat … It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying: “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing” and you rise, shakily, and go off muttering, “Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing.” People who came to the première of the Fifth in the best of moods, wept.' This is State-sponsored joy in a similar vein to Rachmaninov’s hypnosis!

On the night the Philharmonia gave it a very competent performance without the naïve freshness Zander’s Snape exploration brought to the symphony. Under Zander’s baton the significant moments did not disappoint; the entry of the piano was like the treading down of the masses by a brutal tyrant. The Mahlerian folkish Scherzo of the second movement was a vivid reflection on lives lost and a lost way of life. The Largo seemed like a ray of hope, a young child’s face amongst carnage. He particularly brought out how Mahler also influences the march-like theme at the start of the fourth movement that builds to timpani-driven desolation at the end. There was beautiful solo clarinet, horn and violin (the always impeccable Maya Iwabuchi) and the brass as a group were on top form. Care had been taken throughout the evening with the sound to ensure a greater depth to the aural experience than I have heard from the restricted platform at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for previous big works.

It was a pleasure to see Benjamin Zander back in a London concert hall. When the Royal Festival Hall reopens let’s hope that it is Mahler that brings him back next time. He promises us Mahler Eight soon and that will be a concert to be at!

 



 Jim Pritchard

 

 




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)