Why a Rachmaninoff festival?
A woman put that question to me at Friday morning’s Coffee Concert. Was it an anniversary or something, she asked, as I looked at her blankly.
The truth was, all the while I had been looking forward to this weekend’s and next weekend’s Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concerts, both sets devoted to the music of Rachmaninoff, that question had not so much as crossed my mind. Who needs an excuse for a Rachmaninoff festival? I guess that was what I had been thinking.
And I am clearly not alone.
Buffalo brims with fans of Serge Rachmaninoff. Friday’s crowd was big for a morning concert. Pianist Fabio Bidini won a fervent standing ovation for his performance of the Piano Concerto No. 4.
Another detail also was telling. Bidini played from a score, and Music Director JoAnn Falletta conducted the Second Symphony from memory. Usually the soloist plays from memory and the conductor uses a score. In both cases, the reason for the exceptional occurrence looked like love. Bidini, who beautifully played the concerto, must not get to perform it very often. And Falletta – well, all you had to do was look at her in the middle of a crescendo, her head back, her arms stretched wide. You can tell she is crazy about this music.
The concert began as perfectly as I have ever heard a concert begin. The first piece was “The Sea and the Seagulls,” a Rachmaninoff piano piece orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi. Respighi was a wonderful composer in his own right and a master of orchestral color, and this little-heard piece is lovely. It eased underway as if emerging from the air. The accompaniment often had a circular feel – you could think of Philip Glass – that suggested the seagulls wheeling overhead. Eloquent touches of woodwinds suggested bird calls.
It sounded like a movie score, said more than one listener.
The concerto came next, and continued the bliss. Bidini has been in Buffalo performing Rachmaninoff before. He has the strength and the swagger that is needed to rock it. The score detracted a bit from the swagger, but you had to forgive him because, as I said, this concerto is a rare bird.
It is rarely heard in part, I understand, because of its difficulty – but more so because its melodies do not grab you as the melodies do in the more popular Second and Third concertos. You won’t leave humming it.
You will, however, love it. Bidini is an enchanting player, strong but also delicate. He delineates lines gently but makes them sing. It is a delight how he lingers on a phrase, every note beautiful. An upward sweep of notes near the end of the last movement sounded like a twinkle – so fleeting, so perfect.
The BPO players, too, showed their virtuosity. You can tell just by listening how challenging the score is, not least because everything has to be impeccably timed. Six – count ’em – percussionists were crisp and precise. The slow movement was a special thrill, with the contrast between the crystalline piano and the loud honks and slams from the orchestra. It must be fun in a way to play this piece, to be in charge of that kind of joyful noise.
The end was a blast. Rachmaninoff always ratchets things up in the last moments, and as the music was hurtling toward its close, Falletta turned to face Bidini, and the two brought it in together, the orchestra crashing along in perfect sync. Bidini rose to his feet with the last chord and he and Falletta hugged each other and the crowd went crazy. Great music, and great theater. How do you top that?
You don’t try, and so for an encore Bidini played, pianissimo, Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor, Op. Posth. His approach was florid and 19th century, but there is a time for that, and this was it.
Rachmaninoff’s huge, mightily enjoyable Second Symphony closed the concert. The BPO performed this masterpiece rather recently, and you could argue over whether it’s too soon to return to it. But there might have been people who missed it last time, and hearing this piece live should be on everyone’s bucket list.
We have another guest concertmaster this weekend and next. He is the Israeli-born Netanel Draiblate, currently concertmaster of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. Draiblate looked eager, often sitting on the edge of his seat. He also seemed competent, judging how tight the violins sounded, especially noticeable in the second movement, the scampering Scherzo. The slow movement, everyone’s favorite, was gloriously over the top. Trust me, even if you are a Rachmaninoff rookie, you will recognize this theme.
Again, as in the concerto, it was fascinating to note the musicians’ subtleties. Timpanist Matthew Bassett, clarinetist John Fullam, and so many of their colleagues all contributed individually to the music’s beauty. The concert ended as it began, flawlessly, with Rachmaninoff’s signature ending. The rhythm literally says “Rachmaninoff.” Wait for it.
The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday at Kleinhans Music Hall. It should gain something in atmosphere under cover of darkness. Rachmaninoff belongs in evening wear.