REVIEW: Romantic Rachmaninov (Vondráček/WASO) by Sam Gillies

Romantic Rachmaninov with Vondráček and WASO

Reviewed by Sam Gillies
on the 3rd May 2014
for Limelight Magazine
WASO captures the light and the dark side of post-Romantic Russian masterworks.
Rachmaninov – Caprice Bohémien//Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No 2//Shostakovich – Symphony No 5

WASO’s Romantic Rachmaninov program divided its focus between two unique voices of Russian classical music in the 45-year period between 1892 and 1937. The first half of the program was dedicated to the work of Rachmaninov, with two works that captured the composer’s beautifully lyrical and melodious approach to composition and orchestration, a decidedly romantic vision of Russian composition. The second half of the program consisted of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5, a more sombre work, the product of the oppressive Soviet government in force in 1937.

The orchestra opened with Rachamninov’s Caprice Bohémien. An appropriately light start to the evening, the work showcased Rachmaninov’s orchestral talents in a small, easily digestible package of eighteen minutes. Conductor Alexander Lazarev accentuated the sharp shifts from dark to light through out the work in a delightfully theatrical manner, turning at one point to playfully share a nod with the audience.

Caprice Bohémien is one of Rachmaninov’s formative pieces, having been composed prior to his notorious Symphony No 1, and as such the work feels like something of an exercise. Everything is ordered and evolves quite conventionally; certainly a commendable piece but not a defining work. WASO’s realisation captured the subtle nuances at the heart of the work, an enjoyable performance but it is doubtful I’ll give the work a second thought until the next time I’m faced with it.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 rounded out the first half of the evening’s performances. Possibly the definitive Rachmaninov composition, WASO was joined bysoloist Lukáš Vondráček, whose attention to detail helped carry the requisite energy upon which the piano concerto relies. Hunched over the keyboard for the duration of the work, Vondráček lent the performance his immense talents, creating a delicate interplay between piano and orchestra.

The slow opening chord progression, such a distinguishable feature of this piano concerto, set the performance up beautifully, while the second movement was an exercise in restraint, perfectly capturing a sense of delicate beauty. But it was the third movement where Vondráček took control – a movement full of Rachamninov’s signature, intricate piano runs, that Vondráček attacked with fervor. The audience response was overwhelming and rewarded by a short encore – Brahms’ Intermezzo in A Major. It was a beautifully realized rendition showcasing Vondráček’s immense talent to an appreciative audience.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5 is a fascinating piece. On the one hand, the work itself is an incredible feat of inventiveness. It is simply immense, covering a huge gamut of musical nuance, whilst retaining a cohesiveness and structure throughout (particularly when compared to his Symphony No 4). On the other hand, the political history of the work is difficult to escape. The symphony was first performed following an attack on Shostakovich’s music by the Soviet government. The overall sombreness flies in the face of the desired style of Soviet music of the time, and the final triumphant movement feels overblown and forced. It is a work written within the confines of a particular brief and yet it manages to take this limitation and create something truly outstanding. It certainly gives the listener a lot to think about.

Alexander Lazarev’s theatrical approach to conducting was paired down somewhat in the second half, though still clearly discernable; he commanded the orchestra in a firm, authoritarian manner, the ‘dictator’ of the orchestra. The juxtapositions of texture and dynamic were clearly punctuated, with WASO uniting perfectly for the oppressive phrases of angled rhythm and lyrical melodies that define the first two movements.

The sombre third movement lost none of its impact, with WASO capturing a stark vulnerability and crushing sadness, before rising to the triumphant fourth movement, famously described by Shostakovich as a ‘false triumph’. WASO’s rendition was just as overblown and excessive as I’ll admit I was hoping for!