Fort Worth — Tuesday night at Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth’s The Cliburn served up a meal of three rich desserts in the form of a concert of the three most beloved of Rachmaninoff’s works for piano and orchestra. Pianists Fei-Fei, Yeol Eum Son, and Daniel Hsu, all finalists from recent Van Cliburn International Piano Competitions, served as soloists, joined by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Eugene Tzigane.
As a long-time and ongoing admirer of Rachmaninoff, I’m the last to complain about the concept of a concert devoted entirely to the music of the great Russian romantic. But in the case of Tuesday night’s concert, a largely undernourished approach from two of the soloists, poor balance between orchestra and piano, and a sometimes careless approach from conductor Tzigane put a drag on the long evening.
In terms of programming, the concert’s repertoire pushed several of the right buttons, touching on both ends of Rachmaninoff’s canon. On one hand, the adamantly romantic Concerto No. 2 from 1900 displays the extravagant, almost unrestrained emotionalism of the composer’s early years; on the other, the sharp-edged, succinctly structured Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini from 1934 reveals a composer who, while not abandoning his hardwired romanticism, is obviously aware of the currents of modernism flowing freely at that time in the world of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The composer of the C minor Piano Concerto lived the privileged life of a member of the imperial Russian aristocracy; the composer of the Paganini Rhapsody had fled the Revolution under cover of night and settled as a refugee in New York.
Although the agenda included chronological breadth, a journey outside of Rachmaninoff’s big three concertos–for instance, either of the two lesser-known of his concertos, or one of his several excellent tone poems for orchestra—would have given the evening a tiny taste of adventure, otherwise lacking.
Chinese-born Fei-Fei, finalist of the 2013 Cliburn Competition, proved the most successful in creating dramatic impetus and communicating a convincing grasp of the musical content of the Paganini Rhapsody (actually a set of vividly contrasting variations). Conductor Tzigane leaned on the noisy, more aggressive elements of this score, bringing brass and percussion frequently to the fore, but often overlooking the mellow, soaring elements—In spite of an expanded, full entourage of strings. Fei-Fei, however, demonstrated a balanced blend of he lyricism and the sometimes surprising humor and sting in her part. Orchestra and soloist lost each other for a couple of uncomfortable seconds early on, but Fei-Fei was magnificently on target for the almost-too-famous Eighteenth Variation, deliciously stretching the final chord before the orchestra’s entrance midway through the variation, and creating a breathtaking, perfectly timed pause before the final cadence of that same section. Problems of balance, with the orchestra covering the piano, began to show up in this work, and would continue throughout the evening.
Korean Son, silver medalist of the 2009 Cliburn Competition, followed with a promisingly warm, almost serene reading of the dark opening passage of the Concerto No. 2; however, conductor Tzigane continued to hone in on the more aggressive elements in the score, often completely overpowering the piano, while pianist Son disappointingly opted for calm over passion—a bad choice for this sometimes stormy, often grandly emotional work. This approach proved particularly deadly in the slow movement, where Son floated blithely over the ominous passions of the score, for a strangely emotionless effect.
After intermission, California-born Hsu, bronze medalist of the 2017 Cliburn Competition, took on the monstrous challenge of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, with its monumental length and technical and emotional demands. Hsu had demonstrated formidable technique in the final round of the 2017 contest in a breathtaking rendition of the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1; here, he rushed across the surface, managing to play every one of the thousands of notes, but often leaving musicality and sense of direction by the wayside. Under Tzigane, the orchestra was little help, continuing to cover the piano part much of the time; the finest moments arrived in the several extended (and notoriously difficult) cadenzas, in which Hsu was able to demonstrate insightful sensitivity and draw a sometimes gorgeous tone from the piano.
The nearly full-house audience reacted enthusiastically to all three soloists; the three pianists obligingly returned for a joint encore, crowding around the keyboard for the Romance for Six Hands, a sweet, lyrical trifle in which the teenaged Rachmaninoff tried out some material he later recycled into the slow movement of the Second Piano Concerto.