Oregon Symphony review: Study in contrasts

Oregon Symphony, guest conductor Nicholas Carter, and Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin collaborate in an exhilarating ride from the heroic to the monumental


“Since Beethoven’s time all so-called symphonies, with the exception of those by Brahms, have been symphonic poems. In some cases the composers have given us a program or have at least suggested what they had in mind; in other cases it is evident that they were concerned with describing or illustrating something, be it a landscape or a series of pictures. That does not correspond to my symphonic ideal.” — Jean Sibelius.

Marc-André Hamelin played Rachmaninov with the Oregon Symphony.

Marc-André Hamelin played Rachmaninov with the Oregon Symphony.

Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3, the Finnish composer’s shortest and least monumental, was ahead of its time in 1907. Amidst a sonic landscape filled with the likes of Mahler and Richard Strauss, played by increasingly huge orchestras, Sibelius confounded even some of his most ardent supporters, who had expected more of the lush, Romantic sounds that had characterized his first two symphonies. In contrast to both his previous efforts and those of other leading orchestral composers of the era, he made a conscious effort to step away from the programmatic tendency he wrote about at the time.

Sibelius’s Third, which the Oregon Symphony performed at their sold-out Sunday matinee performance on October 9 using a pared-down orchestra of 58 players and running to 29 minutes, is therefore “pure music.” Like the symphonies of Mozart or Haydn, it relies on its classical structure and inner relationships for any abstract “meaning.” In all three movements, the composer gets great mileage out of small choirs of similar instruments (woodwinds, horns, cellos plus double basses) poised against the body of the orchestra. But it is the haunting second movement Andantino, with its recurring melody in six beats — now divided into three, now into two — that makes this symphony unforgettable. Australian conductor Nicholas Carter brought out all this movement’s beauty in admirably understated fashion.

The Sibelius closed the first half of the concert, which had opened with the usual disconcerting bit of pre-concert blab, which included kudos to the program’s sponsors, the mandatory cellphone warning, and the unnecessary introduction of concertmistress Sarah Kwak by name. Mr. Carter finally got down to business in a sensuous but also crisp and sharp rendition of Wagner’s “Waldweben” (Forest Murmurs) from his opera Siegfried. Flutist Martha Long and clarinetist James Shields were standouts impersonating the birdsong that leads the drowsy Siegfried to embark on his quest to find the sleeping Brunnhilde. Wagner’s appetizer, in its best arrangement by Wouter Hutschenruyter, proved a tasty concert opener.

Sergey Rachmaninov.

Sergey Rachmaninov.

Of Rachmaninov’s five piano concertos (four plus the Paganini variations), the third is widely considered the most difficult for the soloist, although the composer himself, often considered the greatest pianist of his time — greater than Rubinstein! greater than Horowitz! — liked it best “because the second is so uncomfortable to play.” The difficulties of the Third are not only technical, although these are daunting enough. Lacking the over-arching, gorgeous melodies that make the First, the Second, and the Paganini rhapsody unforgettable, and endlessly popular, the Third demands of its soloist not only remarkable pianistic chops but also a convincing way of dealing with its lyrical side, especially in the second movement Adagio.

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin proved more than equal to the task at hand. Like most other interpreters of this concerto, he took things slower than Rachmaninov did in his celebrated recording made in 1939, when he was already 66 years old. There, the composer showed his immense technical ability but also his emotional reserve in playing even the most sensual “slow” bits — the first movement cadenza, the entire second movement — at a rapid tempo. Rachmaninov’s second movement comes in at under 9 minutes while Hamelin took a generous 11, and the effect seemed better: more emotionally engaged. In a movement without any brass notes, except a few discreet ones by two of the horn players, Hamelin urged a maximum of beauty and contrast from Rachmaninov’s headlong score.

When it came time to pound the keys, as in the final movement’s closing pages, Hamelin was irresistible, sweeping Mr. Carter and the orchestra along with him to the crashing, triumphant coda, at which the audience rose in a shouting, standing ovation. It was easy to imagine this performance on an equal footing with Rachmaninov’s own favorite, when he played the concerto in 1909 with the New York Symphonic Society under no less a musician than Gustav Mahler.

Since the 1930s, when Horowitz “popularized” it by playing it repeatedly in concert and recording, Rachmaninov’s Third has been taken on more and more frequently, but it’s hard to imagine a more technically proficient and also thoughtful rendition than Hamelin’s. He made the hard parts seem inevitable and easy and the lyric parts equally inevitable and lovely. In an encore, which Hamelin announced simply with one word (“Rachmaninov”), he gave an exquisitely gossamer rendition of the 1902 piece “Lilacs.”

Recommended recordings

Sibelius Symphony No. 3: Esa Pekka Salonen, conductor, YouTube; Neeme Járvi and the Gothenburg Symphony (BIS label); Colin Davis and the London Symphony (LSO Live label.

Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3: Horowitz with Albert Coates and the London Symphony in 1930 (HMV); Rachmaninov with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1939 (RCA Red Seal); Byron Janis with Antal Dorati and the London Symphony in 1961 (Mercury); Martha Argerich with Riccardo Chailly and the German Symphony Orchestra in 1982 (Philips); Yuja Wang with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Symphony in 2014 (Deutsche Grammophon).

Terry Ross is free-lance reviewer. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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