LAWRENCE’S LISTENING (September, 2007)

By Lawrence Budmen

Once a rarity on American symphonic programs due to its nearly hour long duration, Rachmaninoff’s rapturous Symphony No.2 in E minor is scheduled for two performances in Miami this season. Alasdair Neale essays it with the New World Symphony in September while March 17, 2008 brings a Russian version with Mark Gorenstein and the State Symphony of Russia at the Carnival Center (under the auspices of the Concert Association). Tchaikovsky considered Rachmaninoff his successor and this massive, almost Mahlerian symphonic essay overflows with the kind of brooding, darkly emotional melodies and opulent orchestration that Tchaikovsky so effectively brought to his symphonies and tone poems.

A new Telarc release ( by the Cincinnati Symphony under Paavo Jarvi offers a streamlined, 21st century interpretation of this romantic epic. Jarvi’s taut momentum and fiery urgency brings new life to this orchestral staple. The conductor never confuses sentimentality with overblown melodramatic hysteria. The sensuous Cincinnati violins, vibrantly dark violas and cellos, bright winds, and mellow, burnished brasses turn in a capital performance. As added bonuses, the disc offers Rachmaninoff’s early Scherzo and two colorful dances from his opera Aleko. This new recording is an ideal introduction to this awesome score. For the seasoned collector, Jarvi’s lean, intense interpretation provides a striking contrast to classic recorded versions by Eugene Ormandy and Andre Previn.

Yo-Yo Ma is not only a great cellist. He is an artistic visionary who possesses a brilliant, inquisitive musical intellect. One of this superb artist’s most fascinating investigations of cross cultural musical pollination is the Silk Road Project. Ma has endeavored to construct a musical reincarnation of the ancient trade route that linked Europe with the lands of the East by bringing together musicians and composers from diverse nations and cultures along that geographical path. The combination of Western and native, folk based instruments has produced its own unique fusion of musical genres. Sony’s latest Silk Road album New Impossibilities ( abounds in wonderfully inventive scores that spring from a newly broadened cultural landscape. 

The rock inflected, jazz syncopations of Arabian Waltz by Lebanese composer Rabih Abou-Khalil are not far removed from the repetitive minimalism of Phillip Glass or Steve Reich. Night of the Flying Horses by that incredible genius Osvaldo Golijov is one of the Boston based composer’s unique blends of Judaic and Romanian gypsy elements (with a poignantly emotive cello solo for Ma, contrasted with Gypsy fiddling and Asian percussion riffs). The longest and most powerful work on this disc is Iranian born Kayhan Kalhor’s The Silent City, a pensively ruminative lament over the extermination of the Kurdish village of Hallabja in Iraq. With the composer playing the kamancheh (spike fiddle), the strings sing a haunting eulogy that burns with heartfelt fervor. The ancient Chinese programmatic suite Ambush from Ten Sides (describing the war between the Han and Chu kingdoms) features Wu Man whose mastery of the pipa (the Chinese lute) was on display at Festival Miami several seasons ago. With Technicolor support from the Chicago Symphony under Miguel Harth-Bedoya, this score is pure Hollywood in its kaleidoscopic color and sweep. Ma and his Silk Road players are simply terrific in this boundary pushing collection, recorded live before an enthusiastic audience at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall.

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s new Telarc recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is a bona fide event. Inspired by the late Glenn Gould’s two idiosyncratic versions of this masterpiece, Dinnerstein does not attempt to simulate the timbres of a harpsichord. She reinvents the score as a pianistic tour de force. This New York based pianist’s technical agility and introspective musicality are of the most rarified order. The slow, measured pace of the thematic Aria is embellished by colors and sonorities of Impressionistic boldness. This is Bach as seen through misty gauze of Debussy and Ravel. In the fast variations, Dinnerstein’s fierce tempos and springy rhythms are invigorating; the dreamy quality of the slow sections entrance and beguile. Here is a brilliant creative impulse wedded to a bravura technique. Dinnerstein is scheduled to perform with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and the Dresden Philharmonic at the Broward Center on February 19, 2008. Her revisionist view of the Goldberg Variations is the work of an artistic genius! 

Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto has been over recorded but the new Telarc disc by Irish pianist and cultural icon John O’Conor is a real surprise. In Europe O’Conor is a star and for good reason. He dusts off the cobwebs from the Concerto No.5 in E-flat Major in a performance filled with surprising turns of phrase and gesture. His incisive rhythmic impetus, creamy tone, exquisite pianissimos, and sense of the grand line make this Emperor a real treat. With a relaxed, lyrical account of the Concerto No.2 in B-flat Major (the gentler side of Beethoven) as a companion, this disk spells 24 carat Beethoven. O’Conor is a formidable interpreter and a consummate musician. He receives lovely, elegantly tailored support from the London Symphony and conductor Andreas Delfs (whose work with the Milwaukee Symphony has won accolades). The first installment of a complete Beethoven concerto cycle by O’Conor, this recording sets a high standard!

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