Rachmaninov – jubilation and bitterness, but sheer poetry from Joyce Yang

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
Vocalise Op.34 No.14 (transcribed by the composer)
Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor Op. 30
Symphonic Dances Op.45

Joyce Yang (piano)
Edo de Waart (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 27th October, 2017

A beautifully put-together programme, this, devoted to the music of Rachmaninov, and in almost every way, superbly delivered! There could be no doubt, however as to who the “star of the show” was – Korean-born American pianist Joyce Yang gave what seemed to me a performance in a thousand of the composer’s fearsome D Minor Concerto, regarded by many as one of the most technically difficult works for piano and orchestra ever written. Earlier, the NZSO and conductor Edo de Waart had breathed into life a deliciously-poised orchestra-only version of the wordless song, Vocalise, in an arrangement devised by the composer. Then, following the concerto, came a performance of Rachmaninov’s very last work, his “Symphonic Dances” , written in 1940, three years before his death. The first two of the dances came off best, here, particularly the first, with its beautifully-played saxophone solo – I confess to being a tad disappointed with the final dance’s performance, feeling that it was wanting in “bite”, and needing more wildness and desperation in its execution.

The Vocalise, which began the programme is one of those pieces which has been arranged or transcribed for a variety of instruments – it began life as a wordless song which concluded the composer’s Op.34 collection, entitled “14 Romances for high voice and piano”, and was written specifically for the voice of the great Russian soprano Antonia Nezhdanova, Rachmaninov wishing to give the singer a vehicle for displaying the beauty of her voice without recourse to words. The composer was to subsequently arrange the work both for voice and orchestra accompaniment, and for orchestra alone, although more recent sources suggest that Rachmaninov originally wrote the work for Nezhdanova to perform with orchestra AFTER the rest of the songs were already written for voice and piano, the Vocalise being subsequently added to the “Romances” collection. Among the various arrangements, the most unusual is probably that for theremin and piano, arranged by Clara Rockmore (nee Reisenberg), who was the electronic instrument’s most well-known exponent during the twentieth century.

This was a gorgeously-played performance (the conductor’s very first of this work, as he tells us in the programme’s introductory note), enabling the NZSO strings to really show their mettle, and delivering all those qualities which bring out the work’s inherent tenderness, lyricism, depth of feeling and range of intensity. The strings at first had the lion’s share of the playing, but they were gradually joined by the winds, firstly seeming to merely echo-phrase-ends, but then to increasingly augment the harmonies of the textures, as well as contributing counterpointing lines. Towards the end the music becomes strongly reminiscent of the slow movement of the composer’s Second Symphony, by dint of a clarinet solo which takes over the theme for a few measures before surrendering it again to the ascending strings.

Though in some ways moving from the Vocalise to the D MInor Piano Concerto seemed like something of a “quantum leap”, the links between the two works were here more than usually stressed by the character of the concerto performance, soloist Joyce Yang giving one of the most poetic and sheerly beautiful realizations of this work I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing!  She and Edo de Waart had played the piece together at least twice before with different orchestras, so the interpretation was “of a piece”, with the give-and take between soloist and orchestra replete with understanding and fluency.

Among what marked out her performance for me from so many others was her conveyance of involvement with every note of the music she played – nothing sounded mechanical or “less important” (as either “fillip” or transitional” sequences), but all had its place in a kind of organically-conceived whole. Another thing was, as I’ve said, her remarkable poeticizing of so much of what she played – never did she seem interested in virtuosity for its own sake. Whatever “display element” was in the solo part was there because of the music, and nothing more.

In addition, neither have I heard another pianist bring out to the same extent the music’s impish, quixotic aspect – she found a spikiness in some of the figurations that I thought equated with Rachmaninov’s contemporaries such as Prokofiev,Ravel and Bartok, and even in places, Gershwin. Humour isn’t often a quality one associates with Rachmaninov’s music, but the way Yang articulated some of the filigree passage-work in places made me smile at the playing’s sheer character – this was no faceless perfection, seamless articulation, bland liquidity or pure decoration on show – every note, as I’ve said, had its own raison d’etre, in this performance.

I confess I had to go back all the way to 1993, and Peter Donohoe’s performance of this work with the NZSO under Nicholas Braithwaite, to recall the same wonderment and pleasure at hearing this work “live” – an example of such shared alchemy of interpretation was during that brief, but telling sequence just before the final first-movement reprise of the work’s opening, when the piano gently drifts a repeated bell-like sequence of notes across an ambient crepuscular soundscape enriched by soft horn-chordings – like Donohoe did, Yang drew out this passage exquisitely, once again allowing the notes to speak their character and make an indelible impression upon the listener, however brief and fleeting…..

As for the notorious “virtuoso” elements of this concerto, Yang showed us that she could certainly “finger it” with the greats, as well as match the orchestra in tonal depth when she needed to, putting all of her physical weight into the playing of the heavier chords, such as in the massive first-movement cadenza, and again during the build-up to the final peroration at the work’s very end, and letting her fingers and wrists do the work in the more scintillating passages. People expecting virtuoso thrills got an amazingly musical version of the same from their soloist, one which realized all of the work’s necessary excitement and exhilaration.

No greater contrast with the concerto could have been given to us than what Yang played as an encore – an enchanting performance of one of the most beautiful of Grieg’s “Lyric Pieces”, his “Nocturne” from the “Lyric Suite”. Though it seems heretical to say so, I could have gone home happily after hearing this, feeling as if I had heard a piano articulate all the intrinsic beauty that it was possible for the instrument to express. Of course, I stayed! – lamenting the degradations that have resulted over the last generation of years in visiting artists such as Joyce Yang NOT giving solo recitals in tandem with NZSO appearances, as used to invariably happen in the (good) old days! A modestly-resourced Music Society such as that in Waikanae, which hosts world-class artists such as Alexander Gavrylyuk consistently and successfully organizes piano recitals – why can’t the NZSO do the same with their visiting artists, any more?

Though the first half was a hard act to follow, the orchestra and Edo de Waart did their best with the composer’s compositional swan-song, the “Symphonic Dances”, which appeared in 1940, three years before Rachmaninov’s death. The composer wryly remarked, “I don’t know how it happened – it must have been my last spark!” – but upon closer analysis of the music itself one can hear alongside all the echoes of the past and allusions to previous works, a spirit determined to raise its voice not only in protest at and defiance of the critics who reviled his works, but in bitterness and anger at having lost his homeland and his sources of inspiration. Had Rachmaninov lived for another ten years and been able to work further through these feelings, who knows what else he might have achieved?

The work itself was received with some negativity on all sides – with bewilderment by some of the composer’s “fans”, who were expecting more lyricism and lush orchestrations along the lines of the Third Symphony and the Paganini Rhapsody, and with a good deal of both half-hearted enthusiasm and outright derision by the critics, some of whom by this stage had made Rachmaninov-denigration a kind of “sport” (readers should look up the critical warblings of one Pitts Sanborn for a particularly vicious example of this, in relation to the composer’s Fourth Piano Concerto).

Rachmaninov described himself to an interviewer as “a ghost wandering in a world grown alien”, not being able to either “cast out the old way of writing” or able to “acquire the new”. Despite this assertion, the Dances’ relative toughness, leanness of orchestration and rhythmic asymmetries are nowadays regarded as evidence of the composer’s very apparent awareness of what was happening all around him. This is opposed to the more institutionalized view of Rachmaninov as some sort of nineteenth-century compositional throwback almost right to the end. As Brahms would have said, “any jackass” could hear elements of the old Rachmaninov in places throughout the music, the aching, yearning lyricism, the exciting rhythmic snap of certain figurations, and the oft-quoted “Dies Irae” theme which haunted his work from his First Symphony onwards.

The first two dances were beautifully done, the highlight being the saxophone playing of Simon Brew in the first dance, Rachmaninov writing one of his most beautiful melodies for the instrument, before allowing the strings to take over and repeat the melody, to lump-in-the-throat effect. The whole was framed in sharply-accented, no-nonsense rhythmic fashion by de Waart and his players, who took just as readily to the spooky waltz-rhythms of the second movement, a kind of Russian “Valse Triste”, and gave its melodies a proper “yearning” quality most characteristic of the composer.

Where I craved some more “bite”, a tougher, harsher, more urgent response to the music was in the third dance, whose Stravinsky-like rhythms for me “sat” too heavily – de Waart’s steady-as-she-goes way with the music I thought produced more a feeling of petulance and bad-temper rather than galvanizing, sharply-etched bitterness. With the “Dies Irae” and exerpts from the Russian Orthodox liturgical Chant “Blessed is the Lord” literally “fighting it out” in the music, I wanted more sparks flying, more combustion, more sense of triumph over bitter adversity at the end. Perhaps while on tour with this piece de Waart and the orchestra will push this piece further and further to its limits, and achieve a harder-won but ultimately more cathartic and appropriately triumphal conclusion to an already momentous concert.

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