Sunday, March 07, 2010

Rossini, Ravel, and eighty percent of Rachmaninov

Last night, for the first time in more years than I like to admit, The Wife and I attended a Classics concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. How long has it been? Well...a while. Maximiano Valdes was the music director; the concert we attended back then was conducted by Arie Lipsky, and it wasn't even at Kleinhans. It was in the auditorium of the high school in Olean, before we were even married.

Yeah, it's been a while.

Since then, the orchestra has gone through the financial hard times that every orchestra has gone through, but it's also gone through an artistic revitalization that began when Valdes left and JoAnn Falletta took over. Since then the visibility of the orchestra in cultural circles has gone up dramatically, with new recordings on Naxos and the orchestra's private label, concerts broadcast on national radio, performances at Carnegie Hall, and so on. This week the orchestra embarks on its first tour -- of Florida -- since it traveled on a month-long journey to Europe in 1989. Heady, heady times for the BPO!

And yet, we didn't attend until last night. (We did attend a "Family" program a couple of years back and are going to another in two weeks.) We were gifted some time back by my sister with a gift certificate for orchestra tickets, and the first of the concerts we chose for ourselves was last night's program. Why that one? Well, because the major work on the program was one of the biggies in my life, a work I've referenced many a time in this space over the years. They were playing Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2 in E minor, a work without which I could not live, and a work that I know so well that I can quite literally "play" it in my head. More on that later, though.

The first half of the program was utterly wonderful, starting with Rossini's overture to Semiramide. I confess that I'm not totally up to snuff on my Rossini; aside from William Tell and Barber of Seville, I can't readily discuss his music much. But this overture was scintillatingly played, featuring some wonderfully deft work by the woodwinds and the horns. I was terrifically impressed with the orchestra's level of unison playing; Maestro Falletta's work has clearly made the orchestra play with more precision than I ever remember hearing from them before.

The Ravel Piano Concerto came next. Our soloist was an Italian pianist named Fabio Bidini. I'd never heard of him before, but in my experience, that doesn't matter one whit. Along with the BPO. he turned in an amazing performance of the Ravel Concerto, a work of many influences: French impressionism mixed with jazz motifs. I'd never heard this work before (in fact, until a few days ago, I thought the orchestra was performing the more famous Ravel Piano Concerto for Left Hand), but I enjoyed it a great deal. It has all the "big Ravel moments" one could ask for, in addition to many quieter, meditative moments, such as the way the second movement is seemingly played halfway through by the solo piano alone, in an effect so captivating that it was almost a surprise when I saw the string players lift their instruments at last. It felt almost like a reverse of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, in which the symphonic exposition is so good and so long that when the soloist finally reappears, it almost comes as a surprise.

Mr. Bidini made it very easy to tell that the Ravel had ended, when he exploded out of his seat and was pumping Falletta's hand even before the clapping had swept through half the hall. Bidini eventually offered an encore, which he did not identify (I believe it was a nocturne or etude by Chopin).

Intermission came, and we had already had a memorable night of music making. And the Rachmaninov Second Symphony was still to come. And sadly, this is where things got a bit problematic.

My first intimation came before the concert even started, when I read the program notes for the piece. The Philharmonic likes to print running times for pieces in the programs, and they indicated that the Rach 2 would take 46 minutes. That made my brow furrow a bit. As I've noted, I've lived with this piece for over twenty years now, more than half my life, and I've heard it performed live once before as well (in college, by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra). I've never once seen a recording of this work that took less than 55 minutes, and some go over an hour, if the conductor's tempi are particularly broad. To bring this piece in, in 46 minutes? Unless Maestro Falletta was about to set some very quick tempi indeed, there was only one way I knew of that the Rach 2 could be that short.

It goes back to the history of the piece in question. Rachmaninov was the "next in line" in Russian Romanticism in music to Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninov's problem was that his brand of brooding Russian Romanticism was quickly going out of style. The Second Symphony premiered in 1908; Stravinsky's game-changing ballet Le sacre du printemps would premiere just five years later. While the Rach 2 was initially a success, over the course of the 20th century Rachmaninov's music tended to be viewed as anachronistic, especially the poor Second Symphony, whose 60-minute average length seemed to mid-century modernist ears as bloated self-indulgence.

So it was that through most of the 20th century, the Rach 2 was only performed in editions that removed up to twenty minutes of music. Many of these cuts were sanctioned by Rachmaninov himself, although I would be very surprised if these cuts were not somewhat coercive in nature -- it was either cut the piece, or never get it played. The era of long symphonic works was, for the most part, over. It wasn't until the 1970s that conductors started exercising fidelity to Rachmaninov's original score, starting with Andre Previn in the very 1973 recording that was my eventual introduction to the work. Every recording of the Rach 2 I have ever heard has been made since Previn's, and every one has been of the complete symphony. In truth, I had simply assumed that the edited version was no more, and that forevermore the Second Symphony would be known in the way that Rachmaninov himself originally conceived and composed it.

Alas, it turns out that the edited version is alive and well and in the hands of the Buffalo Philharmonic.

For me, it was literally like hearing eighty percent of the work. Not a huge amount was cut -- they didn't take an hour work and make it into a 35 minute work -- but enough was cut that every time I started to lose myself in the piece, there would be a cut, which would eject me from the piece. I just can't fathom why Maestro Falletta would have chosen to perform the edited version, except for one possible reason: that the length of concerts is mandated by musician's union by-laws, and the program simply could not have accommodated the entire piece. If that's the case, then...well, they should have performed Rachmaninov's Third Symphony instead, as that one actually is about 45 minutes long.

The orchestra's sound is amazing -- it's almost as if the orchestra was built to play this kind of repertoire. The winds and the brass complement the strings so wonderfully, and the strings' sound is so lush, that the Rach 2, at times last night, sounded almost perfect. So why not play the entire piece? Especially to cut the third movement, eliminating the amazing passage where the violins reprise the long melody that had first been sounded by the solo clarinet?

Rachmaninov's Second is an epic work. That's the only way I can describe it. It's the musical equivalent of a long Russian novel. By cutting it, the epic is made smaller, and I don't understand why. An hour is not abnormally long for a symphony -- it's long, to be sure, but not abnormally so. Beethoven's Ninth takes 65 to 70 minutes. Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique tends to clock in at around 55 minutes. I don't think that Bruckner or Mahler ever wrote a symphony between them that took less than an hour.

The Buffalo Philharmonic played most of the Rachmaninov Second about as well as the piece can be played. I just wish they had played all of it.

1 comment:

redsneakz said...

Beethoven hated Rossini's music, and I consider the overtures halfway between great music and a guilty pleasure. But, they bring me a great deal of joy nonetheless.