Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the Russian National Orchestra (RNO) returned to perform the first of two concerts in the Great Performers Series organized by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Their conductor was Founder and Artistic Director Mikhail Pletnev. Their concerto soloist was pianist Yuja Wang, performing in both of the programs they have prepared. Last night’s concerto offering was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 44 in G major. This is the second of Tchaikovsky’s three piano concertos, written about five years after his much better known first concerto (Opus 23 in B-flat minor).
One can appreciate why this concerto is performed so seldom. The technical demands are both greater in number and far more challenging than those encountered in Opus 23. Pianists who have mastered Opus 23 and then decide to take on Opus 44 find themselves in the same position as Beowulf discovering that, having slain Grendel, he would now have to content with Grendel’s mother.
The tempo marking for the first movement is Allegro brillante e molto vivace, and therein lies the rub. After using two full hands to launch the opening theme, the pianist must deliver an almost non-stop salvo of rapid-fire passages, almost as if Tchaikovsky had decided to write a full-movement cadenza propped up by one or two thematic statements. Fortunately, the pianist gets to take a generous rest during the second movement Andante non troppo, when Tchaikovsky shifts his attention to extended solo work for the concertmaster (Alexey Bruni). The violin solo is later joined by a solo cello line (Alexander Gotgelf), almost as if Tchaikovsky was revisiting the “White Swan” pas de deux from his Swan Lake ballet score (Opus 20). Like the Opus 23 concerto, this predates Opus 44 by about five years; and this time violin and cello are joined by the piano, suggesting, if only briefly, the intimate encounter of a piano trio. Once calm has been restored, however, the third movement is back off to the races with an Allegro con fuoco tempo, “fuoco” definitely being the operative word in the description.
The result is thus both technical challenge and endurance test. Did Wang manage to get all her notes right? At that speed it is impossible to tell; but the wind beneath the wings of this music is that of passionately assertive rhetoric, rather than technical accuracy. Wang was with this music in the proper spirit for every leg of her metaphorical flight; and Pletnev’s disciplined control of the orchestra, particularly in the outer movements, served primarily to maintain momentum. (In the second movement he could settle into a more conventional approach to lyricism, and his interpretation achieved just the right level of sensitivity.) At the very least the experience was an impressive one, and both Wang and Pletnev made a noble effort to mine the few gems of music buried underneath the excesses of technical display.
One could thus appreciate Wang opting for an encore of calming quietude. She opted for Giovanni Sgambati’s transcription of the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. This is less of a piano warhorse than it used to be, but Wang made a solid case for returning it to repertoire with a solidly serene account through which one could appreciate Sgambati’s respect for every note that Gluck had written.
Having caught her breath, Wang was then ready to set off one last round of fireworks. When she performed with SFS back in May of 2009, her encore was a wild and wooly paraphrase by Arcadi Volodos of the final movement (“Turkish Rondo”) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 331 A major piano sonata. Last night, however, Wang turned to an even wilder rethinking of Mozart by Fazil Say. It did not take Say long to depart from Mozart’s book in favor of a plethora of jazzy riffs, which Wang rattled off with so much ease and verve that one would have thought she had been improvising them. The whole affair was as delightful as it was bizarre.
Wang was not the only soloist on last night’s program. The intermission was followed by the appearance of soprano Lisa Delan singing the world premiere of Gordon Getty’s “Gretchen to Faust.” It is not often that a visiting ensemble brings a world premiere to its program, but this provided an opportunity for RNO to introduce the music in the composer’s presence without the composer having to travel.
The work was inspired by Faust’s encounter with the imprisoned Gretchen in the final scene of the first part of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. Rather than translate the German, Getty reconceived an English text by turning Gretchen into a ghost, giving Faust instructions on the burial of not only her own body but those of the other members of her family. While the text sheet presented the words as a blank-verse poem, Delan’s delivery reflected Getty’s talent for expressing prose that emerged so vividly in his “Usher House” opera. (That prose was also a great relief from Goethe’s persistent doggerel.) The piece was short (about five minutes in duration); and the musical language was modest. However, the dramatic impact made for a fascinating reflection on the traditional Faust legend.
The major work on the second half of the program was Igor Stravinsky’s 1945 suite based on his score for the ballet “The Firebird,” which he completed in May of 1910. This latter-day return to one of his earliest compositions seems to have been motivated by Stravinsky’s desire to establish copyright protection in the United States. It is the most extensive of the three suites that Stravinsky prepared, and Pletnev gave an account that superbly accounted for the composer’s rich use of extended instrumental resources. This was the selection that best served the full RNO ensemble; and, with Pletnev as their conductor, they certainly knew how to give a compelling account of their well-polished sonorities.
In contrast the program began with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 96 “Festive” overture. This was composed in 1954 for the celebration of the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution. Those who believe that Shostakovich had a keen talent for encrypting his personal thoughts in his music might not be wrong in assuming that Shostakovich was interested in a rather different celebration, that of freedom from the interference of Joseph Stalin, who had died in March of 1953. The music amounts to an exuberant romp that frequently recalls grand gestures from Imperial Russia. Apparently the Party officials did not catch those references and embraced the overture as recognition of their own triumphalism. Score one for Shostakovich.
At the end of the program Pletnev followed the Stravinsky selection with two encores by Aram Khachaturian. The first was the opening waltz from a suite composed in 1944 based on incidental music written for the play Masquerade by Mikhail Lermontov. This was followed by “The Dance of the Youths,” a Lezginka, from the second act of the four-act ballet Gayane. This dance may not be as well-known as the more familiar “Sabre Dance” from that ballet. However, it is just as vigorous and perhaps even more over-the-top, particularly when it sounded as if at least some of the RNO players were improvising.