Rachmaninoff Without Drama

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff
When one thinks of Rachmaninoff, ‘drama’ is a typical word association. In his very first symphony, however, we see a mellower side of the great Russian composer.

Interpreting Piano Concerto No. 1 at the Long Centre this weekend is the French-born pianist Lise de la Salle. In remarks before her performance with the Austin Symphony Orchestra, de la Salle expressed great enthusiasm for the concerto. “For me it is special – it is a unique Rachmaninoff, free of drama. It is infused with freshness and joy, with a touch of humour here and there. It doesn’t have the darkness and headiness that we see in his later symphonies.”

While still a teenager in 1891, Rachmaninoff wrote this symphony, but he changed most of the 3rd movement in 1917, which is the version we hear in Austin. “I’m not the only one who is glad he did revisit it,” said de la Salle. “It is a wonderful piece of music.”

Conductor Peter Bay with pianist Lise de la Salle
Early in the first movement we encounter a hypnotic passage, emphasized by de la Salle in the dead slow movement of her left arm. After an orchestral passage the piano resumes as if a ballerina was dancing on the keyboard. A series of strong chords ensure leading to a rapidly delivered ending delivered with brio.

The second movement opens with a languid piano solo performed with great sensitivity and restraint by de la Salle. Only a moment separates a langourous melody that ends the movement with the utterly capricious third movement. One young concert-goer described the effect to me as “very impassioned.” The pianist followed her well-deserved standing ovation with an encore of Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair.

Piano Concerto No. 1 was bookended at the Long Centre by the 9-minute-long Carnaval Overture by Alexander Glazunov, and the nearly hour-long Manfred Symphony by Tchaikovsky. The Overture is a fun piece that nearly gets lost in its own grandiosity. The Manfred, from 1885, is a musically and psychologically complex composition whose great depth was ably explored by maestro Peter Bay. Tchaikovsky very nearly transcends the symphonic form, which was barely able to contain the immensity of his musical thought on Lord Byron’s 1817 poem Manfred. Leonard Bernstein, who will be featured in the October performance of the Austin Symphony, disliked the Manfred so much he never recorded it. What one thinks of this vortex of consciousness is purely an entirely personal matter, but it is great the Austin Symphony is giving us all the chance to hear the Manfred, which is not on the roster of most symphony orchestras.

As the third and final in a series by the Austin Symphony on great Russian composers, this one lived up to expectations. There is one more opportunity to hear the concert: Tonight Sept. 15, 2018.

About Cliff 79 Articles
Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, and a research associate at the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He is a founding member of Sun News, and managing editor of Sun News Austin. (The photo at left shows Sun News editor-in-chief Dave Moskowitz)

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