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Saturday, June 8, 2019

Concert Review: The Follies of Youth

The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Beatrice Rana onstage at Carnegie Hall with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the background.
Photo by Paul Vincent. 
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra returned to Carnegie Hall on Friday night for the last of their appearances this season. For this program, Mr. Nézet-Séguin chose a pair of mostly forgotten and badly neglected early works by prominent Russian composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. These Russian rarities flanked the more familiar Third Piano Concerto by Serge Prokofiev with soloist Beatrice Rana.

The concert started with the Carnegie Hall premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Funeral Song, an early (1908) work written as a memoriam to the composer's teacher and mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It lay undiscovered in the library of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 2015 and is only now getting a hearing around the world. In this slow dirge-like single movement it is possible to hear the DNA of what would eventually become The Firebird a few years later. The elements include Russian Orthodox church modes, a sense of dour ceremony and a grand sweeping sound that would overwhelm and enthuse audiences just a few short years later.

Serge Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 was next with featured soloist Beatrice Rana. After a short, thoughtful introduction for the clarinet and winds, Ms. Rana leaped right into the fray, her fleet fingers pounding out the main subject matter as the orchestra scurried in her wake. This is fearsome stuff, exploding into a galaxy of shooting arpeggios. The piano's motion is perpetual against the quicksilver orchestration, skittering off into virtuoso flights that come briefly back to earth, only to springboard once more into that main thematic piano idea played with even greater intensity than what came before.

Ms. Rana slowed in pace but not intensity for the central movement, a set of five witty variations on a thematic idea. With Mr. Nézet-Séguin, she lead a thrilling exploration of each of these, from the slow run up the keyboard that starts the movement to the galloping second variation. The third is urgent with hints of jazz ideas and the fourth slow and weird. Ms. Rana saved her most heroic playing for the final movement, a friendly and yet intense argument between keyboard and orchestra with all the intensity of a Russian chess match. At Mr. Nézet-Séguin's good-hearted (but visible) insistence, the artist treated Carnegie Hall to an elegant Chopin encore to close the first half of the evening.

Sergei Rachmaninoff holds much in common with his countryman. Both composers made their reputations as touring virtuosos but Rachmaninoff's travels never took him back to the Soviet Union. He belongs to the generation before Prokofiev, having exited the Moscow Conservatory in 1892. His Symphony No. 1 premiered in 1897 and was by all accounts a dismal failure. The First spent fifty years in darkness before the score was reconstructed in Moscow in 1945. It is still a rarity, rolled out for Rachmaninoff festivals or for conductors making complete cycles of his three symphonies.

The first movement is bursting with ideas and all the enthusiasms of a young composer looking to make his mark. And that's the problem: it's all over the place. There is a bold main theme, an answering second subject and over all, the Dies Irae, the ponderous medieval chant that fascinated the composer and is present in most of his major works. The development veers suddenly into a bizarre fugue, showing great technical deficiency but doing too little to move the work forward. Thanks to the artistry of the Philadelphia players, even this middling stuff sounded good.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin found great beauty in the second movement, a slow Scherzo with the clear influence of Tchaikovsky. The Trio of this opened the vistas of the thematic material into some interesting minor-key territories. The slow movement featured a gorgeous clarinet solo, but meandered. In the last movement, one had the sense of a novelist deep in the thickets of his own work and having trouble finding the ending. When it did come, the blasts of gong and brass proved anticlimactic despite the high level of execution. Perhaps some symphonies deserve to be forgotten.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats