Put them together and you have a killer beginning to the two-week "Rach Fest" at the Powell Hall.
[Download the complete St. Louis symphony program notes in PDF format]
Friday morning’s program featured compelling performances of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” (in the 1917 revision) and Shostakovich’s dark and acerbic “Symphony No. 1”, as well as the local premiere of Rimski-Korsakov’s colorful “Skazka” (“Fairy Tale”). It was, to say the least, a tremendous success and was warmly received by a larger than usual audience.
It has been almost exactly a year since the multi-talented Mr. Hough (he’s a composer and writer on music and theology as well as a virtuoso pianist) graced the stage at Powell Hall. Last time it was a knockout reading of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 2”. This time around his Rachmaninoff First was at least as impressive. Mr. Hough has done the Rach First with the symphony before—in February of 2007 under Maestro Robertson. At that time I noted that he “played with the ease and confidence that are the hallmarks of solid keyboard technique” and see no reason to change that assessment now.
Originally written while Rachmaninoff was a student at the Moscow Conservatory, the concerto was later revised substantially on the eve of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and it's not hard to hear the faint echoes of that turbulence in the sweep and drama of this remarkably concise and vigorous work. Mr. Hough has the chops to give full vent to that drama, cruising through all the flashy writing in the opening and closing movements, but he was equally convincing in the nocturnal yearning of the Andante. Mr. Graf matched him with a soulful reading that made effective use of rubato at key moments without ever losing the concerto’s sense of momentum. His tempo for the finale was brisk, but the symphony musicians handled it with ease.
Friday morning Mr. Hough acknowledged his well-deserved standing ovation with a delightful encore: his own mashup of the Russian song “Leningrad Nights” (known here in the West as both “Midnight in Moscow” and “Moscow Nights”) with motifs from Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2”. It reminded me of the clever Piano Puzzlers that Bruce Adolphe provides for PRI’s “Performance Today” radio broadcast and was much appreciated.
Much as I love Rachmaninoff, the most interesting thing about these concerts to me was the presence of the rarely heard Shostakovich symphony and the even rarer Rimski-Korsakov.
Written as a Leningrad Conservatory graduation piece and first performed in 1926 (when the composer was only 19), Shostakovich’s First Symphony is a remarkable study in contrasts, with chamber music-style solo passages cheek by jowl with the full-tilt bombast of the composer’s more popular works. There are wonderful moments, for example, for the principal oboe, bassoon, flute, clarinet, and cello as well as piano part that calls to mind Stravinsky’s “Petrushka”—a piece that was very likely in the composer’s mind at the time. Perky melodies reminiscent of the stuff Shostakovich probably heard during his work as a cinema pianist pop up in the first and second movement, standing in stark juxtaposition to the brooding and sporadically anguished gloom of the third, while the final Allegro molto wraps everything up in a classic flourish of brass and percussion which manages to sound both triumphant and sarcastic at the same time.
With so many “concerto for orchestra” solo passages, the Shostakovich First is rife with opportunities for individual players to shine—which is exactly what they did Friday morning. Mr. Graf’s interpretation was, I thought, very transparent to the music, allowing Shostakovich to come through pretty much unfiltered. It was tremendously exciting stuff.
This was my first opportunity to see Mr. Graf perform live, by the way. His style, it seemed to me, was marked by equal parts of precision, warmth, and good humor. His podium presence is not overly demonstrative, but I was nevertheless left with the sense that he takes great joy in the music he conducts. That appeared to communicate itself to both the musicians and the audience.
Like the Shostakovich, Rimski-Korsakov’s brief tone poem “Skazka” (“Fairy Tale”) is also filled with lovely solo passages, particularly for clarinet, flute, oboe, and violin. Its episodic structure suggests an underlying narrative related to the work’s literary inspirations—Russian folk tales and Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila—but the composer declined to be specific, allowing the listener’s mind to conjure up whatever exotic images the colorful music suggests.
Mr. Graf’s performance made the most of the music’s many contrasting moods and the symphony musicians responded with their usual fine playing. The solo passages were beautifully realized, even if the flute had to briefly contend with cell phone accompaniment at one point.
Which brings me to the only negative aspect of Friday morning’s concert: the clueless conduct of some audience members. It’s bad enough that Mr. Graf was obliged to hold the opening downbeat for a minute or two while waiting from some folks on the house floor to stop yakking. What was really rather embarrassing was the applause that broke out during the transition between the third and fourth movements of the Shostakovich. Concert etiquette says you don’t start applauding until the conductor lowers his baton. For many composers (like, say, Shostakovich) silence is an element of composition. Conductors usually respect that. So should audiences.
Next at Powell Hall: The “Rach Fest” continues Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3, April 28 and 29, with the Rachmaninoff ‘s Second Piano Concerto replacing the First. The rest of the program is the same as Friday’s. The Rach Fest concludes May 4-6 with the “Piano Concerto No. 1” (Friday at 8 PM) and “Piano Concerto No. 3” (Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3). Stephen Hough is at the keyboard again with Peter Oundjian at the podium. The program for all three concerts includes Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5”. For more information you may call 314-534-1700 or visit stlsymphony.org.