Sunday, April 19, 2015

Symphony Review: A pair of threes is a winning hand for the SLSO, Friday and Saturday, April 17 and 18

Simon Trpčeski
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Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko
What: Music of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: April 17 and 18, 2015

[Find out more about the music with my preview and the SLSO program notes.]

A pair of threes may not be a winning hand at the casino, but it paid off handsomely at Powell Hall Friday night with virtuoso performances by the St. Louis Symphony and guest conductor Vasily Petrenko of Scriabin's "Symphony No. 3", Op. 43 (1902-04) and, with soloist Simon Trpčeski, Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909) ."

The Rachmaninoff Third—"Rach 3" to its friends, of whom I am one—is widely regarded as one of the most challenging concerti out there.  Fiercely difficult, it’s a reminder of what a prodigious pianist Rachmaninoff was.  For many years after its premiere, its only real advocate was the composer himself. 

These days it's a part of the standard repertoire.  Even so, it's a hell of a workout.  By the time Mr. Trpčeski banged out those four final chords that Rachmaninoff often used as his musical signature—one long note and three short, corresponding to “RACH-man-in-off”—he looked like he had run a marathon.

Which, in a way, he had, since his performance had both the virtuoso flash and musical sensitivity that the concerto demands.  He threw himself into this work, displaying a breathtaking energy in the first movement's extended cadenza and getting every ounce of hallucinatory intoxication out of the Intermezzo second movement—one of the best performances I've heard of it, in fact.  This was at least as good as the excellent Rach 3 we got from Stephen Hough and Peter Oundjian three years ago.  It was a nearly ideal combination of passion and poetry—which is probably what you should expect from a pianist who sings Yves Montand's "Les feuilles mortes" ("Autumn Leaves" to us Anglophones) in an interview.

Mr. Trpčeski recorded the concerto for the Avie label with Mr. Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic back in 2010 (copies of it are for sale in the lobby), so both performers obviously know the work well and are comfortable playing it together.  Mr. Petrenko's interpretation was richly expressive, bringing out every bit of Rachmaninoff's dark romanticism without sacrificing a sense of momentum.  The last movement, in particular, was a bit on the brisk side, but the tempo proved to be completely comfortable for both the orchestra and Mr. Trpcheski.

The Rach 3 is the kind of thing guaranteed to get a standing ovation when it's played this well, so you won't be surprised to learn that it got one Friday night.  The audience was rewarded with, first, words of praise for the orchestra from Mr. Trpčeski, followed by a charming encore: Chopin's "Waltz in A minor, B. 150 (Op. Posth.)," written in the mid-1840s but not published until 1955.  It was a nice mental palate cleanser after the Rachmaninoff.

Vasily Petrenko
"Moderation," Oscar Wilde once quipped, "is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess."  He could well have been referring to the life and work of Aleksandr Scriabin (1872-1915). Although a close friend and contemporary (they were born only a year apart) of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin was a far more eccentric (not to say insane) person.  And although he died young, his compositions—especially his solo piano works—anticipated the twentieth century's near-total collapse of conventional notions of harmony (at least among "classical" composers) in ways that those of his longer-lived friend did not.

First performed in 1905, his "Symphony No. 3" (subtitled "Le Poème divin," "The Divine Poem") has an ambitious program.  The work, according to a note presumably written by Scriabin and distributed at the work's 1905 Moscow premiere,  "represents the evolution of the human spirit, which, freed from the legends and mysteries of the past that it has surmounted and overthrown, passes through pantheism and achieves a joyful and exhilarating affirmation of its liberty and its unity with the universe."

The symphony consists of a short introduction and three movements, all played without pause and running around fifty minutes.  Scriabin titled the movements "Struggles," "Delights," and "Divine Play."  The piece is a richly orchestrated, wildly excessive hymn to excess that makes great demands on the players.  The expanded brass section, in particular, has a lot to do.  And, on Friday night, they did it awfully well. 

And they weren't alone.  The orchestral playing was remarkable for its consistently high quality—impressive, given that the SLSO hasn't performed this music in nearly four decades.  Scriabin is especially fond of the first trumpet here—he seems to have regarded the instrument as his personal voice—so Karen Bliznik deserves a shout-out for her work although, as I say, everybody deserves praise.

Mr. Petrenko had his work cut out for him with this piece.  Scriabin's notions of symphonic construction can sometimes feel repetitious, and there are so many big, swooning climaxes in this music that I think it might be easy to let them become distorted.  But Mr. Petrenko kept Scriabin's big, hyperkinetic musical machine running in top condition.  He allowed the piece to breathe when appropriate (in those delicate passages for the first violins and flutes in the second movement, for example) while still giving full vent to those big, heaven-storming moments.

It was all tremendously exciting, in short, and the audience responded enthusiastically with another standing ovation.  Yes, St. Louis audiences do tend to stand far too easily (and not just at Powell Hall, either), but in this case it was entirely justified.

Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with pianist Emanuel Ax on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., April 25 and 26.  Ax will be the soloist in Brahms' "Piano Concerto No. 2".  The concerts will include music by Elgar and Glanert. For more information:

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