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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: The Atlanta Symphony takes on Rachmaninov with Garrick Ohlsson in a new recording

Maestro Robert Spano and piano virtuoso Garrick Ohlsson evoke the poetic and cultured spirit of Rachmaninov in a new Atlanta Symphony Orchestra recording featuring the Piano Concerto No. 3 and Symphonic Dances. It's an outstanding, dedicated recording that will be appreciated by music lovers.

The first track, the concerto, is known for its brilliant piano pyrotechnics, lively thematic declarations, and gorgeous interactions between pianist and orchestra. Ohlsson's playing is nothing short of masterful in terms of technique, emphases and interpretation. In smooth legato passages that are incisive while rich but not impressionistic, it quickly becomes apparent why Ohlsson would also be known for his Chopin and is touring this year for Liszt's 200th birthday.

At about 36 minutes by Rachmaninov's own estimate, the concerto in this ASO recording actually clocks in with a more typical tempo, a more Romantic 42 minutes. This is the drawing out of something worth considering, an unrushed moment to enjoy and marvel at its genius. Somewhat like Leonard Bernstein's basking in Gustav Mahler's Adagietto, Symphony No. 5.

Speaking of Mahler, the concerto had its world debut in 1909 at New York's New Theater, a Beaux-Arts venue that had opened just weeks earlier, with Rachmaninov as pianist. “Sound... though not a great nor memorable proclamation,” read the Sun's indictment, though Rachmaninov practiced on a silent or “dumb” piano on the steamer across the Atlantic, and a biographer put his first words at the pier in America as, “When is the first rehearsal?” The soaringly modern piece evidently came into bloom weeks later under Mahler, whom Rachmaninov lauded for his thoroughly detailed interest in the concerto's accompaniment. In a 1935 letter to a musicologist, Rachmaninov said the concerto's opening movement “is borrowed neither from folk song forms nor from church sources. It simply 'wrote itself.'” This recording is a high compliment to that spirit.

The later symphony, composed in 1940, which comprises the second half of the new recording may seem comparatively mellow, but if so it is a sleeper that highlights the orchestra's extraordinary strengths. In any case, the relentless, high-spirited concerto is well-balanced by this at-times somber, reflective piece. Rachmaninov's subtle dissonances — some of the most moving chords are the stuff of jazz — are poignant in both works. This is definitely a recording for lovers of piano and Romantics.

The concerto has a zeitgeist as modern as a contemporary work of its time, Oscar Wildes tomb.
  • The concerto has a zeitgeist as modern as a contemporary work of its time, Oscar Wilde's tomb.

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