Late Romantic music in the key of D minor reigned at Saturday night’s Seattle Symphony performance, with two monumental works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Sergei Rachmaninov’s famously difficult Piano Concerto no. 3, from 1909, and the Symphony in D minor (1889) by César Franck.

Kirill Gerstein
© Marco Borggreve

Debuting conductor Johannes Debus, the Music Director of Canadian Opera since 2009 and a veteran of some of the world’s most prestigious opera companies, demonstrated operatic flair in his interpretation of both works. Well known for his performances of 20th and 21st century music, the German-born conductor seemed equally at home in meaty Eastern European repertoire as in a vigorously Germanic representation of Belgian sturm und drang.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein, whom this writer last saw performing a memorable rendering of this Rachmaninov work with the San Diego Symphony, impresses as deeply now as he did then. Gerstein’s mastery of the piece is absolute. His technique is as phenomenal as ever, as is his extraordinary energy and drive. He has a unique gift of taking immediate command, not only of the keyboard but also of the audience, from the haunting, initial 8-note melody all the way to the explosive excitement of the finale. He simply dazzled, with a fierce luminosity, from beginning to end.

To a great extent, Gerstein attributes his powers of interpretation and technical command to his study of the work. He also professes a deep affection for the city of Seattle, the scene of his initial foray to the United States. Thus, to witness this artist perform a work with which he so closely identifies, in a locale that holds such a special place in his heart, was especially inspiring.

What impressed most about Gerstein was that his interpretation of the Rachmaninov Third has evolved over the years. He has not settled for replicating his astonishing rendering time after time, but instead has shown an even deeper understanding of the structure and soul of the work. If the piece seemed written for him at his previous rendering, it now seems almost as if he himself had written it. His constant awareness of the give and take between himself and the orchestra was a pleasure to watch. Debus kept a close and intimate bond with the soloist at every juncture.

One should witness a performance of Gerstein in this work at least once in a lifetime. Even an inordinately stormy Seattle night could not prevent his admiring fans from filling Benaroya Hall to capacity. His encore of Chopin’s Waltz in A flat, Op. 42, left the audience breathless. One senses they would have been happy to listen to Gerstein play at least 12 more.

Such a sparkling prelude would potentially seem to outshine any work that followed, but Debus’s rendering of the Franck Symphony in D minor captivated the audience as well. Franck’s sole – and also his most well-known – symphonic work shows the astuteness of a composer who started out as a young prodigy and found his mature stride in the music, not only of France in which he spent most of his composing life, but also of the surrounding countries, particularly Austria and Germany.

Debus’s rendering emphasized the Austrian and German characteristics of the music. Though he managed to extract an agreeably French sound at times, especially from the trumpet and oboe, one would have preferred a less Wagnerian approach. Despite the similarities in key and timbre to Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, Franck’s work seems to demand a somewhat lighter, more Gallic slant.

Debus did show great astuteness in the way he interpreted the themes of the work that are so skillfully interwoven between movements, for example in the opening leitmotif, with its similarities to the initial theme of Franz Liszt’s 1854 tone poem, Les Préludes (Liszt, in fact, intensely admired Franck’s remarkable capabilities as an organist).

To his credit, Debus is not a conductor who merely beats time. He is well versed in the technique of drawing long lines and sweeping phrases from the orchestra, with graceful, wide-ranging gestures. The orchestra responded magnificently and sounded at times like one massive, symphonic organ, which likely would have pleased the composer immensely. The English horn solo rendered by Stefan Farkas, meanwhile, was deeply felt and beautifully sung.