Conlon, CSO and guests serve up Rachmaninoff rarities at Ravinia
One couldn’t seem more removed from the Russian steppes Thursday night than at Ravinia where this week’s oppressive heat and humidity continued for the all-Rachmaninoff program presented by James Conlon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
“Rachmaninoff rarity” sounds like an oxymoron for one of the concert hall’s most popular composers, but Thursday’s program managed to serve up two belated Ravinia premieres: The Bells and the cantata Spring, with the evergreen Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as box-office bait.
Written nearly a century ago (1912), The Bells remained Rachmaninoff’s favorite work of all his compositions. Based on a freely translated version of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, the symphony for three soloists and chorus is cast in four movements as a kind of tintinnabulatory Rough Guide to the life cycle: silver bells for happy childhood and youth; golden bells for love and marriage; steel bells for life’s terrors by night; and iron funeral bells to mark the passing of earthly existence.
The Bells remains the finest Rachmaninoff work that is still relatively neglected, so kudos to Conlon for this belated festival premiere. Ravinia’s music director is at his best when bringing advocacy to overlooked music and Conlon showed a sure sense of the monastic gloom, lyricism and explosive energy of the music, drawing highly contrasted dynamics and full-throttle playing from the orchestra.
The performance was aided by a trio of excellent soloists. Rodrick Dixon doesn’t really possess the requisite Slavic timbre, but he provided the right youthful tenor in the exuberant opening movement with power in reserve, projecting over the orchestra and chorus in full cry. Kara Shay Thomson isn’t very Slavic in sound either — even with a wide vibrato — but she brought a pure-toned soprano and ardent expression to the second movement.
With the final section, we had the real thing in Vasily Ladyuk. Even with his nose in the score — the only soloist to require one — the Russian baritone’s dark stentorian tone and dramatic expression richly conveyed both the dirge-like melancholy and solace. Scott Hostetler contributed a superbly evocative English horn solo in the movement’s introduction and Conlon and the orchestra were at their finest in the radiant glow of the final pages.
The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus was the wild card in the evening’s performances. The Wisconsin ensemble provided admirable choral singing though it must be noted that the corporate polish, richness and clarity of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus would have delivered a much more imposing account of this multi-varied score. The choral third movement was wanting in particular, with the mild-mannered vocalism out of synch with the psychic terror of the text and the unbridled playing of the orchestra under Conlon.
Ladyuk was also heard in Rachmaninoff’s early cantata, Spring. The rather melodramatic text is sung by a cuckolded husband who vows to murder his wife in revenge. Just as he is about to complete the act, spring returns and the sounds of nature quell his anger and turn his feelings to a kind of romantic stoicism (“Love, as long as you can love, endure, as long as you can endure”) and, ultimately, forgiveness and a transcendent spirituality.
Once again, Ladyuk’s idiomatic style and firmly focused vocalism made a compelling case for this offbeat work. Conlon, the CSO and chorus conveyed the verdant scoring of the opening section as well as the dark lyricism, with the closing consolatory theme, one of the composer’s most beautiful, if little known, inspirations.
It looked for a time that the audience would be experiencing a new choral version of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus remaining seated on stage for the final work, an odd bit of stage management. Happily, it was the standard version and served as a grateful vehicle for Alexander Romanovsky, making a very impressive Chicago-area debut.
The Ukrainian pianist took first prize at the Busoni Competition at age 17. Now 26, Romanovsky displayed a stellar technique with even, iron-fingered articulation in the rapid passages. His style is lean and somewhat technocratic with the celebrated 18th variation rather coolly dispatched — but then such was the composer’s take in his own recording. But Romanovsky is clearly a greatly gifted young artist and a pianist we will surely hear more from in coming seasons.
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