Can you ever get tired of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto or Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique? Not with the right performers, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra must have thought. And the Dutch always have a way to find the right people. They invited a couple of exciting young musicians and offered this high-pathos Russian double-bill on their home turf, De Doelen, no less than three times in four days. With great success too: an electrifying rendition of Rach 3 by Boris Giltburg reminded us how overwhelming this work can be, while Stanislav Kochanovsky highlighted Tchaikovsky’s supreme mastery of the orchestra in his final opus. There’s no way you can get tired of this music.

Boris Giltburg © Sasha Gusov
Boris Giltburg
© Sasha Gusov

Russian-Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg held the audience spellbound with a superb account of Rachmaninov’s most daunting concerto. The opening melody had a tenderly musing quality in his hands. It felt like the beginning of a long narration, which gradually grew more intriguing and passionate, with the simple theme reappearing as a recap throughout the work. Giltburg revealed himself as a master storyteller full of imagination and character, playing with a warm sonority and crisp articulation, and conjuring an impressive array of rubato and inflections to serve the musical purpose. He was on the same wavelength with the young Russian maestro Stanislav Kochanovsky, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra on splendid form. Exchanges between pianist and orchestra ramped up the tension, like the Più mosso, più vivo section in the first movement which was delivered with irresistible drive and exhilaration. It was with the original – massive – cadenza that Giltburg brought us to the edge of our seats;  not a hard-fisted banging contest but a magnificently shaped and shaded climax, a thrilling pianistic tour de force that in itself would have been worth the price of admission.

The spontaneous ebb and flow in the Intermezzo further demonstrated the chemistry between soloist and orchestra. The delicately woven string layers and refined woodwinds set the stage, while in the last movement Giltburg and Kochanovsky imbued the reminiscing of earlier themes with just that right ounce of melancholy that comes wholly natural in Rachmaninov’s world. The run towards the triumphant finale was a model of sonic and tension management. The amount of power that Giltburg could muster at this point was nothing short of astonishing, even surpassing the cadenza, and duly brought the house down. The pianist is no newcomer in Rotterdam but it’s clear that this Rachmaninov concerto will easily rank among his most memorable appearances there.

Kochanovsky seems to have a strong affinity with the music of Tchaikovsky. He has already conducted practically all the composer's symphonic works and concertos, his ballets and four of his operas. This performance of the Pathétique, lucid, well-paced and detailed, left no doubt he has plenty to say. Kochanovsky has obviously thought a lot about the orchestral balance and made sure little or nothing of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration remained uncovered. While the RPO may lack the dark sonority which can turn this symphony into such a devastating experience, Kochanovsky’s attention to the woodwinds and brass, excellent as they were (bassoons and principal clarinet in particular), gave the symphony remarkable tonal contrast and depth. The antiphonally placed violins sounded at times somewhat undernourished (at least from where I was sitting), especially when compared with the violas and cellos. Besides the blooming melodies, such as the big lyrical theme in the first movement which has been used and misused in various contexts often detrimental to the composer’s reputation, Kochanovsky made it clear this symphony set new boundaries for expressive purposes, as in the muscular, stormy development of the first movement, the Allegro molto vivace and even the final emotional outpourings of the Adagio lamentoso. The Rotterdam Philharmonic played it all with great commitment and conviction. If only Tchaikovsky had lived to write another symphony.

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