Reaction: Lugansky Plays Rach 3 with Philadelphia Orchestra

Friday, April 29 2017
Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia Orchestra
Stéphane Denève, conductor
Nikolai Lugansky, piano

Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934)
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909)

When all of your favorite things converge in an occasion that you’ve fantasized about for years and counted down for month, realizing that you missed the last NJ Transit train is pretty darn close to seeing your life flash before your eyes.  But since I would only miss my favorite soloist playing my favorite piano concerto with my favorite orchestra in my favorite music city over my own dead body, I shelled out an arm and a leg for an Amtrak ticket.  It was absolutely worth it, because Nikolai Lugansky playing Rachmaninoff with the Philadelphia Orchestra is everything that’s great about being alive.

Part of Philly’s Rachmaninoff Festival, with any other soloist, this ultra decadent program would probably have been too much of a good thing.  Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a tad saccharine to start with, but fortunately Mr. Lugansky is the ideal pianist to bring out its exquisite and soaring beauty while giving an overall grounded performance.  Sitting directly above and behind the orchestra, the proximity of the drums and brass took some getting used to, though I did have the best view in the house of the pianist.  Pure joy emanates from his playing, yet never indulgently so.  One of Mr. Lugansky’s artistic choices was taking ever-so-slightly longer pauses at junctures where the music was in danger of floating away.  On paper this seems counter to the spirit of the piece, but executed with urbane precision it worked splendidly.  Several years ago a critic had remarked that “[Mr.] Lugansky resurrected this work from the depths of familiarity”, which I think is the best way to describe this performance as well.  It helps that guest conductor Mr. Denève is rather understated himself, deferring to the soloist for the most part but not afraid to highlight the orchestra when the score calls for it–Philadelphia was Rachmaninoff’s favorite orchestra, after all.

I have been waiting for a Rach 3 concert in Philly for a long, long time now, because the last time that I went to one was the most bizarre concert-going experience of my life, and because no other piece of music invokes as many memories of my final year in the city.  In December 2012, the last time Rach 3 was on the Philadelphia Orchestra programming,  a broken water pipe had caused a traffic jam near Kimmel Center, delaying the arrival of many concert attendees and leading the ushers to over-seat the student ticket holders.  Then after a sensational first movement with Denis Matsuev as the soloist, dozens of student ticket holders were asked to leave to accommodate the late arrivals who paid full price for their seats.  This was actually my first time hearing Rach 3, and being so riveted by that first movement, instead of leaving altogether, we stood outside Verizon Hall and watched the rest of the concerto on a live video feed.  I sent a strongly worded email to the orchestra afterwards and was promised that my tribulations weren’t going to be in vain, and the following fall I did observe improvements to the program and like to think that I had something to do with it.  Perhaps to compensate for the experience, in the ensuing months I would listen to Rach 3 over and over again.  That summer I was commuting to New York for a gig at Columbia, and I vividly remember the music accompanying me at absurdly early hours on Monday mornings as the Philadelphia skyline disappeared from view as well as on Friday evenings when I was stuck in traffic in godforsaken parts of New Jersey but nevertheless felt relieved to be going home.  I remember how the second movement sounded different every time I listened to it (still does), how the dazzling ossia cadenza and the explosive finale never failed to make my heart burst (still never fails to), and how much I was already missing the city that had introduced me to such transformative music.  I still miss you, Philly.

On this evening I can’t say that I was able to consistently stay in the moment during the performance of Rach 3; there was the weight of the anticipation, the discomfort of spring allergies, and the stress of work gnawing at me despite my best efforts to block it out.  But still it was a near perfect experience of a near perfect performance, marred only by an inexcusable cell phone going off during the ossia cadenza.  After all, I’ve long believed that Rach 3 is best performed–and experienced–by holding just a little bit back, for otherwise one may be swept away by its dizzying percussiveness.  Impatient as I was for the culmination of the music to provide a long sought-after closure, I was nevertheless desperately wishing for time to slow down so that I can properly enjoy and process this long-awaited occasion.  And when it was all over and I was on my way back to New York, I was already pining for the next time the stars would align, as I used to fantasize about on many other trips out of Philadelphia.  There is an exquisite pain that accompanies this kind of longing, but at the same time, life without it would be inconceivably more bleak.

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Review: Russian Masterpieces, The MET Orchestra feat. Evgeny Kissin

Thursday, May 19 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

The MET Orchestra
James Levine, conductor
Evgeny Kissin, piano

Glinka, Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842)
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901)

Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique” (1893)

I am a logical person by most objective measures, but this doesn’t mean that I’m immune to the the sunk cost fallacy.  Consider Thursday.  The evening’s MET Orchestra concert–a crowd-pleasing lineup of Russian masterpieces with the legendary James Levine and megastar Evgeny Kissin–was long sold out but for same-day rush tickets, so I woke up significantly earlier than usual to line up outside Carnegie Hall.  There were about 40 people ahead of me by the time I arrived, at which point someone more levelheaded would probably recognize the hopelessness of the endeavor and head to work instead.  But I inexplicably chose to wait in line for nearly an hour.  Then later in the day I found a scalper selling a ticket for 50% more than its worth, which was already 50% more than what I’m normally willing to pay, even for a concert of this pedigree.  But because it felt like the ticket was not just for the concert but to recoup the time spent in pursuit of a ticket, I caved in.  So there you have it, the story of why I will be eating oatmeal for the rest of the month.

Anyhow, the concert was worth every penny.  I’ve actually never heard Kissin or Levine in person before.  This was to be Kissin’s last North American concert for several years, and with Levine’s deteriorating health–he conducted from a wheelchair and was very clearly restricted by physical ailments–any appearance is a momentous occasion.  Their version of Rach 2 brought nothing revolutionary to the stage, but in a good way, because how many times can you reinvent the wheel anyway?  I’ve written at length about different modes of Rachmaninoff players, and Kissin combines the best traits of them all.  Neither ostentatious nor aloof, his play is highly refined but also warm, sensitive, and personal, textbook without being formulaic, emotional without being indulgent.  The MET Orchestra’s wind sections, seasoned as they are playing the operatic repertoire, provided the perfect foil.  If I have anything to nitpick, it’s that the strings were a bit too heavy for both the concerto and the always-exhilarating Ruslan and Lyudmila overture that opened the evening.  The weight of the strings made Rach 2 more dramatic than my usual liking, but on the other hand, I had long thought Rach 2 to be a lightweight–albeit a gorgeous one–to Rach 3, and Kissin and this excellent orchestra brought out such detail and nuance in a piece whose obvious appeal is in the broad strokes that I may have to re-examine this conviction.  If anyone in the audience were listening to Rach 2 for the first time…well, let’s just say that I envy them.

Speaking of first times, this was the first time that I had seriously listened to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, and I was blown away viscerally.  At the same time, I don’t quite know what to make of it cognitively.  The program notes classified this as Tchaikovsky’s darkest piece, and some have even speculated it to be the composer’s suicide note, as Tchaikovsky died suddenly only nine days after its premier.  Personally I found the melodies of the first two movements to be reminiscent of the Nutcracker–which the composer had worked on not long before–if more suggestive and reliant on the lower registers (playing to the strength of the heavy strings).  These two movements even sound balletic, as in I was literally imagining ballet dancers dancing to the music.  I’m not sure if that’s intrinsic to the score or just the way the orchestra presented it, or perhaps it’s even my own projection, considering that this ensemble usually plays a supporting role to productions with essential visual components.  Another observation–again, I may be projecting here–is that the orchestra, technically capable as it is, seemed to not finish off themes and transitioned somewhat awkwardly, which makes sense given that operatic audiences usually start clapping at the final notes of arias.

After two melodically familiar movements, the third movement was such an joyous, bombast affair that I couldn’t glean even an ounce of the symphony’s namesake.  The audience erupted into applause at the end of the triumphant march, even if at least some of them should be aware that the symphony was not over yet.  Perhaps this was Tchaikovsky’s pathology, to set up the audience for the devastating conclusion.  Mr. Levine, too, took an extra long pause before the final movement, ostensibly to adjust to his wheelchair, but I wonder if it weren’t also to create maximal distance between the third and fourth movements.  The final movement was downright chilling, from the dissonant first note to the last words given to the lower strings.  Do themes from the beginning movements return in different forms?  I couldn’t tell.  Under less seasoned batons, I imagine one might blame the composer for writing the movements out of order, but on this evening, even if I couldn’t connect the final movement musically to the rest of the piece, emotionally it made sense.  I don’t want to say that the final movement was an elegy, but it certainly felt like farewell of sorts, portended by the first two movements and whose contrast with the third movement is the emotional anchor of the symphony.  The program of this concert was set at least 18 months in advance, before Mr. Levine’s health forced him to resign from Music Director of the institution, but one wonders if Mr. Levine had suspected what was to come, or if this has been another case of life imitating art (imitating life, perhaps?).  Over the past months many have criticized Mr. Levine for not quitting on a high, but personally I respect those who embrace the pathos of an uncomfortable conclusion if they feel that to be the more organic end.
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Review: Rach 1 and Mahler’s 10th, Philadelphia Orchestra feat. Lang Lang

Wednesday, May 11 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Lang Lang, piano

Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1891)
Mahler, Symphony No. 10 (1910, Deryck Cooke 1976 ed.)

For as much as certain NYT critics love to dismiss the Philadelphia Orchestra for conservative programming, it is worth remembering that not all pieces by well-known composers are necessarily accessible.  Case in point: tonight’s concert, the season’s final appearance of my most beloved ensemble at Carnegie Hall, featuring two of the most recognizable composers at their least recognizable junctures.

Rachmaninoff composed his first concerto when he was just 17 years old, and it is said that he had modeled the piece after Grieg’s invigorating piano concerto.  Then he would revise it after finishing his much better known second and third concertos.  You can indeed hear the progression of his style in the music: the first movement, a youthful call to arms of sorts, is reminiscent of the first movement of Grieg’s concerto, the second movement, a quieter introspection, is similar thematically to the second movement of Rach 2, and the percussive finale derives most of its emotions from rhythm instead of melody, much like the finale of Rach 3.  Maybe because the composer was so young when he first worked on the piece, or maybe it’s because he had gone back to revise it decades later, while the First exhibits nearly all elements of Rachmaninoff’s sumptuous lyricism, it lacks the  narrative and cohesiveness of his better known works.  Theoretically, this presents an interesting interpretive opportunity for the soloist.  Though nominally rarely performed, I last attended a performance of Rach 1 in early 2015 with Daniil Trifonov as the soloist and remarked at the time that the 23 year old pianist had impressed with precocious control and youthful abandonment in equal measures.

Lang Lang, on the other hand, is virtuosic and frustrating in equal measures.  Truth be told, if it hadn’t been the Philadelphia Orchestra, I probably wouldn’t have attended the concert because Lang Lang is not good enough of a pianist for me to withstand his stage antics.  On this night, his calisthenics weren’t as exaggerated as the last time I saw him (quite a few years ago, playing Liszt), save for an inexplicable airplane arms pose at the end of cadenzas, though from where I was sitting I was treated to a prime display of his facial contortions.  Look, it’s hard to separate Lang Lang the pianist from Lang Lang the brand, but if we were to be fair, we should acknowledge that Rach 1 is a good choice for him.  As the piece itself has some structural issues, the artist’s gaudy showmanship highlighted the piece’s technical prowess without reminding the audience of its lack of finer nuances and inner consistency, and really that’s a favor the piece returns for the artist in question as well.  I would have preferred the first and last movements to be played more crisply, but certainly things could have been worse–this could have been Lang Lang playing Rach 3, or he could have had to take the stage without the support of Rachamninoff’s favorite orchestra, which, by the way, was game as ever.

Shortly after Yannick returned to the stand for the second half of the program, there were two curious observations of note.  One, many in the audience had left–because they were only there for the pianist, or because they were purists who couldn’t imagine sitting through a re-imagined Mahler?  And two, Yannick appeared much more demure than usual.  As a seating shuffle (despite all the empty seats!) delayed the start of the symphony, instead of sitting down on the conductor’s podium and watching in pretend amusement as he has done multiple times in the past, Yannick remained solemn if a little impatient.  He was about to conduct Mahler’s Tenth after all, drafted as the composer became aware of his wife’s cheating while his own health was failing.  Mahler died before completing the work and only orchestrated the first movement, and the version performed by the orchestra tonight was completed by musicologist Deryck Cooke in the 1970s.  Finishing the work of a titan always presents an uncomfortable conundrum: if the end result is plausible, it will probably be criticized for being artificially so.  Cooke’s version of Mahler’s Tenth certainly sounds Mahlerian, with its overarching struggle interspersed with almost childlike scherzos.  It reminds me of Mahler’s First in structure and seamless integration of life and death motifs.  But whereas Mahler’s First is full of delights and ultimately hopeful, his last symphony is downright chilling, as if the mental state of someone slipping in and out of lucidity.  Indisputably the composer’s most dissonant symphony, some believe that Mahler would have gone over completely to the dark, I mean, atonal side had he lived.  Personally I think the causality is the other way around: Mahler knew his life was nearing its end and thus saved the most dissonant for last.  Whichever way you slice it, this is a difficult piece, and being so early in the week, the orchestra was a bit off–understandably, if still somewhat uncharacteristically.  The strings were first rate as always, but the winds were a little messy.  It didn’t seem to matter, at least not to Yannick, who seemed completely spent but content at the finish.  I’ve seen the man play an hour of chamber music after conducting a full concert, I’ve seen him ripping his tux after an extremely physical 2.5 hours on the podium, and I’ve seen him conduct Mahler’s Second.  But this is the first time that I’ve seen him leave everything on the stage with nothing left.  I’ve said this before and I will say it again: critics be damned, I love this man and this band.  May we all grow together for many more years to come.
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Review: Rachmaninoff Festival III, New York Philharmonic feat. Daniil Trifonov

Saturday, November 28 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Ludovic Morlot, conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano

Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909)
Rachmaninoff, Symphonic Dances (1940)

Hey, it’s rachthree’s first Rach 3!  Needless to say, a special occasion.  It’s also my third time hearing–or trying to hear–Rach 3 in person.  The first time was in Philadelphia with Denis Matsuev as soloist, where after a stunning first movement, I, along with dozens of other student ticket holders, were kicked out to accommodate late-arrivals who held full-priced tickets to the seats.  This prompted a long and angry email by yours truly to the Philadelphia Orchestra management, who actually wrote back and promised to improve the eZseatU program to avoid such situations in the future.  Fastforward a year, indeed nobody was kicked out of Yujia Wang’s Rach 3, though having just flown back on a red eye from the West Coast, not to mention being at once repulsed by the pianist’s attire and jealous of her talent, I barely processed any of the performance.  Third time is supposed to be the charm, and I almost passed on these performances of Daniil Trifonov with the New York Philharmonic because I wanted my first good Rach 3 to be special–nothing against the uber-talented Trifonov, but the thought of NYPhil’s brass section made me cringe.  All concerts in the series had been sold out by early this week, but mere hours before tonight’s performance a cheap 4th-tier ticket became available, which I took as a sign and went ahead.

Rach 3 is my favorite piano concerto.  It is also one of the few pieces of music whose emotions, or at least emotional impact on me, is primarily derived from its rhythm instead of melody.  I’m referring mostly to the first-movement cadenza and the last 30 seconds of the second movement plus the entire third movement.  Compared to Rach 2, which is widely considered to be more expressive and lyrical, Rach 3’s appeal, though just as evident, is more difficult to capture and explain.  To me personally, Rach 2 is about love, whereas Rach 3 is about life and rebirth.  In particular, the first note of the third movement, which the end of the second movement flows directly into without rest, is that moment of resurrection.  It is absolutely essential that the pianist and the orchestra time the note perfectly.  For this alone, Olga Kern’s performance in the 2001 Van Cliburn competition will always be the trademark performance of the piece for me.  This is actually somewhat ironic, as I typically prefer Rachmaninoff to be played aloofly, since the music is so demanding already of both the performers and the listeners.  It’s like they say how runway models shouldn’t be too striking, lest that were to distract from the clothes that they are modeling.  Besides, it must take great restraint to not be emotionally bound by the music; it’s often difficult for me to remain composed just listening to it.  Olga Kern was certainly on the fiery side, but her youth and passion, combined with impeccable timing (which is probably more a tribute to the conductor James Conlon), made for a sensational performance.

I can’t be too critical of Daniil Trifonov–after all, anyone who can bang out Rach 3 is super human in my eye–but whereas Ms. Kern’s Van Cliburn performance lived the journey and the likes of Nikolai Lugansky skillfully narrate the journey, Trifonov’s playing felt like a talented and well-meaning kid trying very hard at the former, but, being 24 years old and probably exhausted from playing Rachmaninoff for a month straight, was burnt out by the beginning of the third movement and didn’t quite yet have the experience to pull off the latter.  The first movement cadenza was played with wayyyy too much pedal, which perhaps the young soloist thought would add depth to his playing.  But outside of that Van Cliburn concert, the magic of which even Ms. Kern herself hasn’t been able to replicate since, Rach 3 is best played clearly and from a distance.  The listener should be the one who is put through the gauntlet of emotions, not the pianist.  The pivotal transition from the second movement to the third was well done, but instead of building up to the multiple climaxes of the final movement, Trifonov seemed tentative and worn out, physically and mentally.  Who can blame him, after playing some of the most taxing works ever written for the piano in his 12th concert in three weeks.  It also didn’t help that the orchestra’s brass winds were even worse than usual, loudly playing off pitch like spoiled children arguing with the piano.  Look, Mr. Trifonov has a bright future ahead of him.  His Rach 3 has improved tremendously from an earlier Youtube video.  The same cannot be said of the brass wind musicians of the New York Philharmonic.  Seriously, this has to be the weakest brass section of any major orchestra.

Just as well, then, that the orchestra closed the Rachmaninoff Festival with the composer’s final large-scale work, the Symphonic Dances, which tolerates, at times even encourages, clumsy loudness from the brass.  (So long as the strings hold up; it was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, after all.)  As Rachmaninoff had lived in the US for over two decades by 1940, Symphonic Dances is an unsubtle combination of American and Russian elements of music.  Here I say combination, not blend, because the components remain rather distinct in the result.  The opening theme sounds like something that could be heard at any high school football game, and who knows, maybe it is played by marching bands.  Then there is a rather long saxophone solo.  Saxophone!  The quintessential jazz, and therefore by extension, American instrument.  The waltz-rhythmed second movement, however, is distinctly Russian in sound.  Perhaps sensing his own mortality, in the final movement the composer quotes both the Russian Orthodox liturgical chants and the Dies Irae of the Catholic Mass for the Dead.  A thoughtful callback to the very first piece played in this marathon festival, the Isle of the Dead.  One senses that, to Rachmaninoff, death was not the enemy, only the denouement of a tormented life, and as these concerts remind us, torment is, if not good for the soul, good for the soul of the posterity.  The Rachmaninoff Festival may be over, but I look forward to hearing Rachmaninoff again and again and again in the years to come, perhaps some of them with Mr. Trifonov once more at the piano.
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Review: Rachmaninoff Festival I, New York Philharmonic feat. Daniil Trifonov

Tuesday, November 17 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Cristian Măcelaru, conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano

Rachmaninoff, The Isle of the Dead (1908)
Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934)
Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901)

This month the New York Philharmonic seeks answer to the question “Just how much Rachmaninoff can one tolerate”.  From the name of this blog, you may surmise that I am a big fan of Rachmaninoff.  Even so, NYPhil’s three-week Rachmaninoff Festival featuring Daniil Trifonov performing Piano Concertos 2 through 4 as well as Rhapsody in Paganini is probably a bit too much of a good thing for the mere mortal.  Now of course, any pianist who can play Rachmaninoff is no mortal, and if nothing else, the young Mr. Trifonov, on his 5th night of playing the the Rach 2/Rhapsody in Paganini double feature, has to be commended for his commitment and stamina.

The concert started with the symphonic poem Isle of the Dead, based on Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name.  That I loved Rachmaninoff long before developing general interest in classical music is in large part, I think, because I sensed a tortured soul overshadowed by the composer’s lyrical virtuosity.  Isle of the Dead, however, seems to be an exercise in just the tortured soul part, and honestly nearly 20 minutes of deathly allusions and heavy, heavy strings were 12 minutes too many.

I’m about as familiar with Rach 2 and Rhapsody in Paganini as I am with any piece of music, or at least with a particular recording thereof featuring Nikolai Lugansky, my favorite pianist.  When one is so intimately familiar with a recording, every note played slightly differently is jarring.  When Mr. Lugansky had performed Rhapsody in Paganini with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande earlier this year in Newark, a reviewer had remarked that “against the clarity and bright sonority of the orchestra, Lugansky resurrected this work from the depths of familiarity.”  I’d say that Trifonov and the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Cristian Măcelaru did kind of the opposite: they made Rachmaninoff nearly unrecognizable.  Well, to me anyway.  Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing–I heard details tonight that had escaped me in the hundreds of times before and gained new interpretations that had never occurred to me.  It dawned on me that the two pieces, which I had always taken to be very different, are in fact very similar: a turbulent intro, an ultra romantic (and Romantic) middle section, and a hard-fought salvation.  Not unlike the Divine Comedy.

The performance-specific comments I have, then, are mostly the comments I have about every New York Philharmonic performance: the orchestra was too loud, the brass winds too horrible.  Based on the Youtube videos that I’ve seen of Trifonov as well as his Rach 1 with the NYPhil earlier this year, his performances tend to be very dependent on the quality of the orchestra.  This was especially apparent in the rhapsody, where the principal trombone started jarringly off-pitch, and the soloist’s playing in the first couple of arrangements were quite timid as result.  (For his first encore later in the evening, Trifonov would play a piano arrangement of the Paganini caprice, as if to compensate for the orchestra’s mistake.)  Beyond that, I tend to judge one’s Rachmaninoff chops by how one plays the 18th variation of the rhapsody (like how I judge a Thai restaurant by its pad thai–you could argue that there are meatier selections than such a saccharine sample, but whatever, it’s comfort food), and Trifonov’s 18th variation was soporific.  What I really admire about Nikolai Lugansky and Yujia Wang, two of the best Rachmaninoff interpreters of our time,  other than their impeccable techniques, is that they seem to play somewhat aloofly, and it is precisely this touch of aloofness that exudes emotions.  Trifonov, once again, does the opposite: he plays passionately and kinetically, yet very little of the passion and physicality converted into emotional impact.  If that makes sense.

The Rach 2 went better, thanks in large part to the orchestra’s excellent strings and woodwinds.  I had never realized it before, but for what is probably the best-known pianistic work of the 20th century, most of the melody in the first two movements are actually given to the orchestra.  After some initial disagreement in tempo and intensity between the piano and the orchestra in the first movement, the orchestra settled down nicely in second movement to provide a lush, gentle background for the piano, as if giving back slightly to the soloist.  By the final movement, Trifonov was in charge and putting on a show, striking the piano with perfect accuracy and vigor aplomb.  Not even a moment after the final note, the audience exploded into a standing ovation, and the soloist came back on stage no less than 8 times, a record among concerts I’ve attended (the previous record was 6, held by Yujia Wang after Rach 3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra; the reception for Trifonov is all the more remarkable considering that he was fully clothed).  Hey, everyone, calm down, let’s not wear out our young soloist in one night–he’ll be here all month.
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