Arts & Events

Garrick Ohlsson Plays Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto with San Francisco Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday October 16, 2014 - 10:24:00 PM

Veteran pianist Garrick Ohlsson joined with the San Francisco Symphony under guest conductor Juraj Valčuha in three performances, October 10-12, of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. Ohlsson, a longtime favorite of local audiences, played brilliantly, handling with apparent ease all the technical difficulties of this most challenging of all piano concertos. Ohlsson’s viruosity was everywhere apparent, in the stirring melody of the first theme as well as in the thunderous passages of the first movement’s cadenza. 

I must say, however, that my appreciation of Rachmaninov as a composer of piano concertos has come slowly and with some reservation. Rachmaninov, who was himself a great concert pianist, wrote gorgeous melodies, as for example the melody of the first theme in his Third Piano Concerto. But somehow Rachmaninov never, or rarely, integrated the orchestra effectively as anything like an equal partner, as, say, both Mozart and Beethoven did in their piano concertos by trading back and forth between piano and orchestra the introduction, variation and development of musical themes.  

Consider, for example, the beautiful melody which opens Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. Of this melody, the composer wrote, “ If I had any plan in composing this theme, I was thinking only of sound. I wanted to ‘sing‘ the melody on the piano, as a singer would sing it – and to find suitable orchestral accompaniment, or rather one that would not muffle this singing.“ Here, in a nutshell, is the source of my reservations regarding Rachmaninov. He generally thinks of the orchestra as a mere accompaniment to the piano, one, moreover, he seeks to limit lest it intrude unduly on the pianistic themes which are always the driving force of his piano concertos. 

Even on the few occasions when Rachmaninov allows a new theme to be intro-duced by the orchestra, as in the first movement’s second theme in the Third Piano Concerto, the orchestral introduction is cursory, “a mere twitch in a few wind in-struments,“ as Michael Steinberg wrote in program notes for this performance. Granted, when the second theme appears fully, there is a perfunctory dialogue between piano and orchestra, who very briefly trade portions of this theme. However, the piano quickly takes over and develops the theme in a long lyric melody with little or no orchestral accompaniment. Once again, all the heavy lifting is given over to the piano, with minimal contribution from the orchestra. For his part, Garrick Ohlsson shone in this development of the second theme, building it slowly but surely to a thundering climax, before the opening theme reasserted itself, this time very tenderly. 

Likewise, this concerto’s second movement, dubbed “Intermezzo,“ begins by totally separating the orchestra and the piano. A lengthy orchestral interlude opens the second movement with a melody introduced by woodwinds then taken up by strings. Even when the piano eventually makes its entrance, it is not to develop the orchestral theme but to disrupt it, wrenching the music away to new and distant harmonic ground. This theme is then developed by the piano in a series of solo variations with minimal accompaniment. When a second melodic theme is introduced, it is first heard in clarinet and bassoon over a waltz rhythm in the piano. Once again, this theme too is taken over by the piano in a dazzling set of variations, which leads almost without pause to the concerto’s “Finale.“ 

Using a “cyclical“ approach akin to that of César Franck, Rachmaninov gives a certain unity to this vast, expansive concerto by integrating elements of the first move- ment’s second theme into the ”Finale,” first in packed chords on the piano, then in an impassioned melody developed at length on piano. In addition, there is even a sug-gestive variation on the first theme that initially set this concerto in motion. A final re-capitulation, brilliantly played by Garrick Ohlsson, brings this challenging concerto to a close. Ultimately, in spite of my reservations about Rachmaninov’s unbalanced treat-ment of the relationship between piano and orchestra, this steely performance by Garrick Ohlsson, utterly devoid of Romantic indulgence, and led energetically by Slovakian conductor Juraj Valčuha, gave as impressive a reading of this difficult piano concerto as one could ever hope to hear. 

The first half of the program was given over to a short 4-minute piece by Steven Stucky, “Jeu de Timbres,“ and the complete score of Béla Bartók’s “The Miraculous Mandarin.“ Stucky’s piece jammed a vast variety of orchestral colors into too small a musical space to do anything noteworthy. As for Bartók’s “The Miraculous Mandarin,” originally written as a one-act ballet based on an Expressionist play by Melchior Lengyel, this lurid piece simply made its points over and over to exhaustion. It began with an orchestral sound-picture of dehumanizing city-life, what Bartók called “an awful clamor, clatter, stampeding and blowing of horns.” Then the music took us into a den of thugs and thieves, who employ a pretty girl to allure men into their basement room where they rough them up and rob them. Bartók’s music emphasizes the sensuous siren-call of the girl’s singing and dancing; but it also wallows in the musically dissonant brutality of the thugs. Eventually, a Chinese man – the Mandarin of the title -- is lured by the girl, beaten, tortured and robbed by the thugs but miraculously survives to consummate his passion for the girl, and only then mysteriously dies. Throughout, the score is un-relentingly dissonant. In spite of Juraj Valčuha’s energetic conducting, Bartók’s “The Miraculous Mandarin” seemed to go on far too long, and could easily be shortened by a third to make its lurid and violent subject matter, as well as its cacophonous musical score, at least digestible, if hardly appetizing. 

Incidentally, on the Saturday night concert I heard, Garrick Ohlsson played as encore Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune.” Ohlsson’s delicate treatment of this atmos-pheric lunar meditation was a bracing contrast to the solar heat of the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto; and I left Davies Hall humming “Clair de lune” all the way home.