Gershwin, Adams & Rachmaninov

Yesterday (Friday) being the last day of (relative) freedom before teaching resumes on Monday I took the opportunity to go to a concert by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera at the splendid St David’s Hall in Cardiff. I had been looking forward to it for some time, as the programme featured two favourite pieces of mine, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and John Adams’ The Chairman Dances (A Foxtrot for Orchestra), plus one longer piece that I’ve never heard live before, Symphony No. 2 (in E minor) by Sergei Rachmaninov.

There was a good crowd in St David’s last night, not surprisingly given the popularity of the pieces being performed. Conductor for the evening was Frédéric Chaslin, who led the orchestra from the piano during the opening number, Rhapsody in Blue. This is a very famous piece, and is played so often that it is in danger of becoming a bit of a cliché, especially when classical orchestras try too hard to sound like jazz musician; the piece was originally written for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. A case in point is the opening clarinet solo, which is often played like a ham-fisted parody. Not last night, though. Principal clarinettist of WNO Leslie Craven gave a very characterful rendition of the notoriously tricky opening, which seemed to inspire the orchestra into an excellent all-round performance. I particularly enjoyed seeing the cello section slapping the strings of their instruments much as a jazz-era double-bass player would.

Chaslin gave an idiosyncratic account of the piano part, to the extent that in the final solo passage before the finale he departed from the script entirely and interpolated an improvised section all of his own. Not everyone in the audience approved – there were a few tuts behind me – but it’s a piece undoubtedly inspired by jazz, so I don’t see anything wrong with doing this. I thought his ad-libbing was charming, and very witty. What I wasn’t so happy about were the changes in tempo, which were too exaggerated. I suppose conducting from the piano means you can do whatever you want, but I think he took the rubato too far. Some sections rely on strict rhythm for their sense of urgency, and I felt he got bogged down a bit in places. Still, on balance, it was very refreshing to hear an orchestra trying to do something different. Nothing hackneyed about last night’s performance, that’s for sure.

Next one up was The Chairman Dances by John Adams. This isn’t actually in the opera Nixon in China, which is what a lot of people seem to think. It was composed at the same time, but cut out and developed as a standalone concert piece. I posted a recording of this yesterday, so won’t say too much today, except that I thoroughly enjoyed my first live experience of this work. So did the orchestra by the look of it! It’s a hugely entertaining piece and had many in the audience tapping their feet along with it. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t have minded getting up and dancing along myself..

Special mention has to go the percussion section of the orchestra for doing such an excellent job. The four xylophones were  a delight to listen to, and the drums, temple blocks, triangles and assorted ironmongery coped brilliantly with the intricate polyrhythms.

Then it was the interval, and a glass of wine before returing to savour the main piece of the evening, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. It’s a remarkable work because it’s not only a “proper” symphony in its construction and development but also the best part of an hour of one glorious melody after another. Rachmaninov’s music is not really very much like Mozart, but they certainly had a similar ear for the Big Tune! I particularly loved the third movement (Adagio), but I thought it was a magnificent performance throughout, not least because you could see how much both conductor and orchestra were enjoying themselves.

The end of the concert was met with rapturous applause from the (normally rather reticent) St Davids audience. Now I have to find the best recording I can of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony so I can enjoy it again. Any suggestions?

18 Responses to “Gershwin, Adams & Rachmaninov”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    There once was a time when I was rather prejudiced about Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. I considered it too nice, too full of pleasant tunes, a late Romantic work with an emphasis on the prettiness of the music, almost an equivalent of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto but without a piano.

    Then I went to a concert in St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, in which Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony was programmed after the interval, while the music that had attracted me there was in the first part of the concert. That concert in my case was with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, about 12-15 years ago.

    As the playing progressed, I had all my assumptions about the Symphony upturned. I heard a magnificently conceived piece of music, one where the large-scale structure was excellently crafted and realised. The Symphony had a great logic to it, building up emotion from the start, reaching a climax with the beautiful Adagio – and indeed a climax at one particular instant 2/3 of the way through the Adagio. Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony was not the late-Romantic slush I had imagined, but a great symphony.

    As for excellent recordings of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, reviewers often mention that by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Preview André Previn, even if I feel a little parochial mentioning my local band. A valuable counterblast to the overly slushy approach adopted by some conductors came from Tadaaki Otaka with the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra, although naming my former local band seems even more parochial: in that recording, issued originally on the Nimbus label, wonderful Otaka kept the prettiness to a minimum and emphasised the logic. I would not want that recording alone because there is a place for niceness in the symphony, but it is a very interesting recording.

    However, it might be sensible not to make any decisions about purchasing a recording just yet: by coincidence, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony will the music featured on
    BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library programme
    at 9:30 next Saturday morning (4th February).

    • telescoper Says:

      Good advice. Although I’ve often found myself totally disagreeing with the recommendations, it’s good to hear what people think who think they know what they’re talking about.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, I’ve often found myself disagreeing with the reviewer when a recording I know is discussed. This may just show that different people appreciate different things in performances.

      There may have been a reason for my former low opinion of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. The symphony used to be performed quite often with cuts to reduce its length, with various sections left out. It could have been these mutilated performances that were unappealing to me. The whole symphony has an excellent architecture.

    • telescoper Says:

      It is actually pretty long for a symphony – running time last night was about 58 minutes – but it doesn’t flag at all. Sometimes a big piece can be an arduous journey even if it is ultimately rewarding, but this one is a delight from beginning to end and that 3rd movement…

  2. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    Like Bryn, I know of the famous Andrew Preview (ah, 40 years ago; we boys of a certain age and our Morecambe & Wise; actually, I remember it as being Andrea Preview, but I know I’m wrong :-)) recording with the LSO.

    I also have the stellar Rotterdam recording conducted by Edo de Waart, as part of a full box set of Rachmaninov’s symphonies, although because they’re on LPs, I haven’t heard them in years.

    More recently (relatively) in Germany, I bought a rather cheap CD box set of all Rachmaninov’s symphonies, concertos, and other pieces, played by the wonderfully named Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonie Zlin, conducted by Peter Lücker, and with Kai Adomeit on piano in the concertos. Obscure perhaps, but actually very good indeed. I wonder if that’ll appear in Radio 3’s list.

    More broadly, I have to say that I’m not quite as averse to the slushy side of Rachmaninov as Bryn seems to be; a guilty pleasure, to be sure, but at the right time and in the right mood, the piano concertos can provoke floods of emotion.

    Of course, it helps that Ashkenazy’s recordings of concertos 2 & 4, with Haitink and the Concertgebouw, was one of the very first CDs I ever bought back in 1986 to go with the Sony portable (really!) player I had then. Add to that very strong memories of an autumn evening walk through a crisp and misty Hermitage of Braid in Edinburgh with a certain very special girl and … well, that’s a story for another time.

    (p.s. With regards the first half of your concert, I’m a huge fan of the estimable John Adams as well. Marvellous stuff. I met him backstage at the Berliner Philharmonie some years ago and he signed my copy of Harmonielehre “To Mark, astrophysiker, from John, musiker”. He told me he knew quite a few physicists at Berkeley and, of course, his opera Doctor Atomic is about Oppenheimer.)

    • Mark McCaughrean Says:

      Sorry; I ought to know better, having lived in the city and having spent many a wondrous night there: it’s the Philharmonie, home of the Berliner Philharmoniker. The night in 1999 Simon Rattle conducted Mahler 7 to win his job as their chief conductor … once in a lifetime.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      This looks like yet another opportunity to post a link to the famous performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto by Eric Morecambe with the London Symphony Orchestra and André Previn on YouTube. (If any readers of this blog haven’t seen it, watch it now.)

      One odd fact about Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony is that the autograph score (the original version of the completed work handwritten by the composer) lies in the British Library in London. It is on display in the Library’s public exhibition space (or was when I was last there).

      I certainly haven’t had the pleasure of meeting John Adams, though I did experience him conducting in London a few years, including his Doctor Atomic Symphony (a symphonic work produced from some selected parts of the opera about the Manhattan Project).

    • telescoper Says:

      I reviewed ENO’s version of Doctor Atomic here:

      And I’m all too happy to oblige:

      I’m glad that last night’s performance was also not too heavy on the banjos..

      • Mark McCaughrean Says:

        While not wanting to insult our host on this blog (!), the link Bryn posted is definitely preferable to the embedded one your reply, Peter. The latter is just the second half of the sketch with the orchestra, while the former is the whole piece including the “It’s in Chicago” banter in front of the curtain. Also, it’s a better quality video; the latter is squeezed laterally.

        First time I’ve seen it many, many years; 40? Very funny stuff and highly nostalgic.

      • Mark McCaughrean Says:

        That’ll teach me; you switched it to the longer version while I was typing in my last reply 🙂

      • telescoper Says:

        I pasted the wrong link earlier….that’ll teach you for being premature.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      The sketch with André Previn was from the 1971 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show, I believe, the same one that featured Shirley Bassey. It was repeated on British television a few years ago.

  3. telescoper Says:

    In fairness to Andrew Preview I should point out that he and his band also made one of the finest available recordings of Rhapsody in Blue.

  4. John Peacock Says:

    It will be interesting to see which Rach 2 the BBC reviewer picks. Previn’s 1973 recording is such an obvious front-runner that no doubt they will find some spurious reason to avoid placing it first. I’ve sampled all the versions available on spotify (30+) and am willing to claim that no-one plays the big clarinet solo that opens the adagio half as well as Jack Brymer does for Previn. Even if someday a better disk is made, that Rach 2 is one of the best things Previn ever did, and you should definitely get a copy. It was clearly a special piece for him, since it was one of the first records he made with the LSO – in 1966. That version has never made it to CD, probably because it has some cuts, and the 1973 revisit was one of the first times the full version had been recorded. I have the 1966 LP, and it’s also a great performance.

    • telescoper Says:

      I forgot to mention the lovely clarinet part in Rach No. 2, also played beautifully by Leslie Craven in the concert.

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    Well, yes, Andrew Preview André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra came top in William Mival’s review of recordings of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony on BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library this morning.

    There was also much praise for Gennady Rozhdestvensky with the London Symphony Orchestra (a 1988 recording) and Walter Weller with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

    That’s curious: three London orchestras. I wonder if there may be some subconscious bias here.

    The 1973 Previn-LSO recording is available with EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century label. My CD of the performance is on HMV’s own label, bought at lower-mid price, reissued under licence.

  6. […] years ago – can it have been so long? – I attended a concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff that included a performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. I enjoyed the performance so […]

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