Saturday, May 14, 2016

Philadelphia Orchestra - Rachmaninoff & Mahler - 05/11/16

Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1 - Lang Lang
Mahler: Symphony No. 10 in F-sharp Major (Deryck Cooke, 1976)

The Chinese are coming! To Carnegie Hall, of all places. The first one arrived last Wednesday evening as classical music superstar Lang Lang was the soloist for the Philadelphia Orchestra, three days before Yuja Wang headlines her own recital also in the Stern Auditorium. Two very different styles, two equally exciting performers. Not a bad way to conclude my Carnegie Hall season.
On Wednesday, the main work of the evening was going to be musicologist Deryck Cooke's 1976 version of Mahler's Symphony No. 10, a monumental work that could have easily filled a shortish concert, but apparently the orchestra's unstoppable music director Nézet-Séguin decided not to stop there, but to start things off with Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1, whose youthful energy seems tailor-made for Lang Lang's trademark impetuous playing.

And his playing was impetuous indeed, but this time it was at least justified by the intrinsic exuberance of Rachmaninoff's first piano concerto, which was later revised and is now chock-full of flashy passages as well as more subtle lyricism. While the composition's numerous qualities do not quite match the immediate appeal of the poppish No. 2 or the sweeping grandeur of the mighty Rach 3, the No. 1 is nevertheless extremely engaging in its unapologetically brazen Romanticism. And if the naturally extroverted pianist occasionally indulged in some over-the-stop theatricals, his musical performance was simply too genuinely thrilling to quibble about them. The orchestra kept a discreetly efficient presence revolving around the fired-up soloist, and the captive audience was totally satisfied.
Maybe mindful of the long endeavor coming up after intermission, Lang Lang kept his encore – Chinese composer Mingxin Du's "Dance of the Coral" – appropriately short, nice and sweet. And understated.
There were quite a few empty seats after intermission in the previously packed Stern Auditorium, proof that some people are more interested in catching a major music phenomenon than curious about experiencing an extended symphony that may or may not be considered to be part of Mahler's œuvre. But even if logically it is not Mahler's work, except for the fully completed first movement, the 75-minute journey is still worth-taking, as the audience who stayed on Wednesday evening can attest.
Written when Mahler was facing serious professional, marital and health crises and remaining a work in progress for a long time after his untimely death, his Symphony No. 10 as completed by Deryck Cooke with the permission of Mahler's widow is well-known for sounding Mahlerian to a fault and for annoying some die-hard purists to no end. But it exists, so why not give it a chance, especially when it is played by an orchestra much celebrated for their expert handling of Romantic and post-Romantic pieces.
The stunningly beautiful, unmistakably foreboding viola opening quickly proved that the Philadelphians still had it, and if the rest of the performance was not always as impeccably consistent, which after all cannot be unexpected considering the composition's history, there was still a lot to enjoy and ruminate over. By now Nézet-Séguin obviously knows how to bring out the best out of his dedicated musicians and on Wednesday they all treated us to truly exceptional moments. And that was more than enough.

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