In October, when we are drawn to probe the mysteries of death and the supernatural, there’s nothing like Rachmaninoff.
And there is nothing like the specific Rachmaninoff repertoire the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is exploring this weekend, as Part 2 of its Rachmaninoff Festival. Just to give you an idea of this music’s mood, the ancient Gregorian chant “Dies Irae,” arguably the most frightening moment of the old Catholic funeral rite, appears in not one but two pieces. Rachmaninoff quotes it in “The Isle Of the Dead,” which opens the concert. And you hear it later, again, in “The Bells,” the choral symphony inspired by the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe.
The atmosphere was unbelievable. For “The Bells,” you felt it before the music even began. The array of people on stage was tremendous: the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, clad all in black, three vocal soloists in front, harp and piano and various percussion – clearly, this was going to be music of great weight.
But great beauty, too. Such sweet sorrow, to use Shakespeare’s phrase.
“The Isle of the Dead,” for starters, was of such beauty that it is hard to call it somber. Rachmaninoff’s inspiration for this journey was a darkly romantic painting by Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin of a boat carrying a coffin to a haunting looking island. Soft at first, then more intense, Rachmaninoff gives you the motion of the oars. Things build from there until you reach, inexorably, the “Dies Irae.”
Music Director JoAnn Falletta, on the podium, paced the piece perfectly, so it had a fine sense of suspense and built only gradually to crashing crests of sound. This weekend’s guest concertmaster, it should be noted, is Justine Lamb-Budge.
After “The Isle of the Dead” came to its eerie close – muffled timpani, an uneasy closing chord – it was time for another guest artist, pianist Gabriela Martinez. Martinez was the soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 1.
Like the Fourth, heard last week, the First Piano Concerto is not heard that often. It should be. It’s a marvelous piece, with strong and memorable melodies, a breathtaking slow movement and a whopper of an ending. Martinez got through it with flying colors.
“The Bells” was an experience I do not think anyone will soon forget. The vocal soloists – soprano Rebecca Nash, tenor Charles Reid and bass Darren Stokes – all had the power the music demands. Reid rang out satisfactorily over the orchestra, and Nash did, too, with a Wagnerian conviction. Stokes, whom we saw last season as Salieri in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Mozart and Salieri,” has a great presence in addition to a fine, resonant voice. He commands attention. The piece’s peaceful, caressing ending was very affecting. Also affecting was a brief tribute, following intermission, to the late BPO bass player William Burns. Four of the musicians from the orchestra’s bass section played “Ten Thousand Sorrows” by the Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez. The concert repeats at Kleinhans Music Hall today at 2:30 p.m.