Dallas — The poster on the Meyerson Symphony Center door for Thursday’s Dallas Symphony concert offered “Rachmaninoff plus Rachmaninoff.” This combination drew a packed house. However, you can’t help but wonder if as big a crowd would have assembled if the poster also stated which of his pieces were on the program.
This is because the two selections are the composer’s least played works—his fourth piano concerto and first symphony—and not without reason. Both are works that gave the composer lots of trouble and frequent rewrites didn’t seem to fix the troubles.
We think of Rachmaninoff as a 20th century composer because he was alive until 1943. However, because of this heavy touring schedule as a pianist to make ends meet, most of his compositions (except for six) were written before he fled the Soviet Union in 1918. This is the source of his reputation of being a composer of old-fashioned over-ripe romanticism. (Remember that 1918 was the year that Gustav Holst’s The Planets premiered.)
Rachmaninoff completed his Symphony No. 1 in 1894. This was the year that Massenet’s very romantic opera, Werther, premiered. In fact, it was critiqued as being shockingly revolutionary by going against the notion of what a symphony should be. Perhaps this was because the premiere was an unqualified disaster.
However, listening to the superb performance delivered by the Dallas Symphony under the inspired conducting of Hans Graf, this symphony fails to impress. For one thing, it lacks an earworm, a glorious and memorable melody. That is the hallmark of the composer’s most popular output. However craftfully his material is worked out, in the end, its banality is its undoing. That aside, Graf and the DSO gave the symphony an exceptionally fine reading, one that makes a good case for more frequent performances.
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4 did not go quite as smoothly. It started off with the legendary pianist Garrick Ohlsson having some kind of communication with someone in the audience. Maybe they were using their cell phone or something, but it was odd. That said, Ohlsson is one the greats of our time and this performance upheld that reputation. He delivered a clean and precise, yet sensitively romantic, performance of this exceptionally difficult concerto.
Part of its difficulty resulted from Rachmaninoff’s residence in New York and hearing the deliciously infectious elements of jazz. His study of the music of Scriabin and a familiarity with Bartók and Stravinsky also left an imprint. The composer struggled to include some so-called modernisms, to shake off the criticism of being old-fashioned. Thus, his chromaticism, the (freedom with the form and use of melodic units rather than his usual memorable melodies, left the pubic confused.
As such, the premiere in 1926 was not critically successful. The composer rewrote it in 1928 to another resounding thud.
In 1941, right before his death, Rachmaninoff rewrote the concerto again. He simplified the piano part by eliminating some of the folderol and cleaned up the rhythmic complexities in the finale and clarified the orchestration. This is the version being played on the DSO concerts. Still, the rhythmic complexity, harmonic freedom and the many abrupt changes in mood, make it a very difficult concerto to put together. It demands some significant rehearsal time—a rare commodity in today’s orchestral reality.
Graf did a fine job of following Ohlsson’s significant personal interpretational efforts, but another rehearsal or two would have sharpened up the critical communication this piece demands between conductor and soloist. However, as it was, it was as excellent, and as stylistically consistent a performance as you are likely to hear.
Graf is one of the best conductors working today, with impeccable stick technique and sound musical ideas. Every gesture is both expressive and necessary. In the loudest parts, his beat contracts, giving him maximal control, instead of the frantic waving we get from many other conductors. When the music changes, his pickup beats are in the mood of the music to follow. This is no doubt about how he wants it to be played and exactly when to start, yet he gives the players some room to bring their own personality to the score.
The combination of Graf and Ohlsson makes this a must-see event for fans of Rachmaninoff’s music. Add to that the rarity of performances of the two works on the program and some urgency to attend the few remaining performances.