Tom Strini

Rachmaninoff rules, Joyce Yang’s cool

The MSO's Rachmaninoff cycle, with pianist Joyce Yang, continues with the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the remarkable "The Bells."

By - Mar 2nd, 2013 01:58 am

Rachmaninoff, c. 1936. Public domain via Wikipedia Commons.

An icy blast from the horns and an avalanche tumble of Joyce Yang’s hands down the piano keys launched Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Friday evening.

Yang, the Milwaukee Symphony and conductor Edo de Waart thus began their fourth collaboration on a series of five all-Rachmaninoff programs. The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Second and Third concerti are behind them – they’ve played the hits. The First is not a hit, but Yang and friends made a strong case that it should be.

Rachmaninoff composed the First as a student in 1892 and revised and finalized it in 1917. The orchestration is more brilliant and active than that of its more famous siblings. At three movements and 27 minutes, it’s more succinct. But it’s just as beautiful and just as technically demanding for the soloist. The First abounds with the lavish, luxurious brand of passion in so much of Rachmaninoff’s music, but it also ranges into diaphanous chords akin to Debussy and episodes of machine-age percussive pianism you’d associate with Prokofiev.

Yang’s enormous power, displayed particularly at the very start and again in the roaring cadenza, hammered home that iron-foundry aesthetic. But when Rachmaninoff was lyrical, sparkling or exquisite, so was she too. In addition to vast power, Yang possesses an acute sense of color, a subtle touch with phrasing and keen feel for rhythm.

By keen rhythm, I don’t merely mean counting accurately, but beyond that understanding what the rhythm means. Friday, the perfect example came in the last movement, in a rough ABA fast-slow-fast form. The first section is a gleeful scamper, a celebration of speed. You expect that to return after the slow part, but a funny thing happens. Rachmaninoff transforms the fast bit from gleaming, unbroken fleetness into an frantic chain of high-speed, violently syncopated notes. Yang whacked the daylights out of them and sold the antic, Looney Tune vibe of the concerto’s closing chapter. You don’t think of rowdy humor when you think of Rachmaninoff, but there it was.

Yang was brilliant throughout but at her very best in the slow movement. Her part is mostly filigree that twines around string melodies, most of them amorphous (this is the Debussy movement). As Yang released her dreamy tones to drift through the hall, sometimes she hesitated so long that she almost stopped. Then she broke the string and released the pearls in a rush. She played not so much a melody as a sigh. De Waart understands Yang exactly, and orchestra and soloist stayed precisely in synch throughout a performance notable for expressive flex.


Pianist Joyce Yang. Photo by Larry Ford.

De Waart also understands Rachmaninoff exactly. The composer’s big, heart-throb melodies tend to arrive wrapped in thick strands of polyphony. The basses and cellos inevitably lend dark heft, which sets Rachmaninoff apart from, say, movie composers of the 1930s. The MSO’s low strings, dead-on in pitch and ensemble and alert and expressive with dynamics and phrasing, gave Rachmaninoff and de Waart what they needed. Beyond that, de Waart balanced these complexes of melody just so – you could hear deep into the texture, but he left no doubt about the main line. This applied to the concerto, to The Rock: Fantasy (new to the MSO) and to The Bells (last played here in 1993).

The Rock, another product of the composer’s youth, opens with a chilling, heavy groaning. A muted horn tolls like a bell through a thick snowfall. That’s not a poetic reach on my part; Rachmaninoff modeled the piece on a Checkhov story involving a chance meeting of two snowbound travelers – a vibrant young woman and a life-weary older gentleman – at a remote inn on Christmas Eve. Glowing, Debussian chords and woodwind flights describe the girl. That bass groaning reappears and takes on more melodic shape to represent the other character. In the end, he disappears in a white-out of muted strings.

If you know Rachmaninoff mainly by the Second and Third concerti, you might think him a rather dull orchestrator. The Bells (1913) is a choral-soloists-orchestra extravaganza of color as brilliant as that of Rimsky-Korsakov. The almost Boston-Pops shimmer on “sleigh bells,” with tenor Richart Croft skimming aloft, floored me – I had no idea Rachmaninoff had such jangling brightness in him. The sonic conflagration he stoked in the “alarm bells” rose to a terrifying racket – and that was on top of jolting rhythms suggestive of random explosions in close succession. All the while, Lee Erickson’s fiercely focused Milwaukee Symphony Chorus portrayed the despairing, fading victims of the flames or the flames themselves, with their ambitions to rise so high as to singe the moon. The “wedding bells” featured soprano Twyla Robinson, soaring easily over complex but light and limpid orchestral/choral webs. Baritone Hugh Russell (a last-minute sub for Grigory Soloviov), brought great weight to the tolling, heaving “funeral bells,” a march that hesitated now and then to lament or philosophize.

They sang in Russian, because Rachmaninoff worked with a perhaps too-free translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem. So the Russian translation comes back to us in banal English super-titles a far cry from the Poe poem printed in the program. I say ignore the super-titles and pretend they’re singing what Poe wrote. Which is really good.

This Rachmaninoff program, given before a big, enthusiastic house, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 2-3, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

Need even more Rachmaninoff? The Bel Canto Chorus will sing the All-Night Vigil (no, it doesn’t really go on all night) on March 10. Details here.

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0 thoughts on “MSO: Rachmaninoff rules, Joyce Yang’s cool”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I actually felt The Rock was the best piece on Saturday night. The breadth of feeling both emotional and sonic was rather a surprise when expecting more in your face emotion similar to the Piano Concerto and The Bells.

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