In the relay race of Russian Romanticism, Rachmaninov clearly took the baton from Tchaikovsky and made a dash for the finishing line. In transcribing some of Tchaikovsky’s works, he would have imbibed much of his genius, but he took the Romantic tradition into the 20th century in a new direction without losing its essence.

Simon Trpčeski © Simon Fowler / EMI Classics
Simon Trpčeski
© Simon Fowler / EMI Classics

Both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov created hummable melodies that refuse to go away, but Rachmaninov’s symphonic works tend to move along like lolling ocean waves lapping the shore; rather than the hyperbolic tidal waves that sometimes engulf those of Tchaikovsky’s, replete with dramatic twists, turns peaks and troughs.

Lawrence Renes and the Hong Kong Philharmonic captured this dynamic aspect of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2, and took the audience swaying and lunging in their seats to the ebb and flow of sensuality without degenerating into wailing self-pity.

The first movement, in sections sign-posted by interludes on woodwinds, opened with morose mumbling on lower strings that prefaced a long and slow introduction which would be the melodic backbone of the work. The allegro part of the movement began on a shiver that gently led into a lyrical highlight based on the opening theme. A dialogue between the brass and strings receded into the earlier lyricism, with the lower strings bringing an abrupt close mid-sentence.

The second movement opened with a gallop on strings and horns, said to be derived from the ancient plainchant Dies Irae, that led to a soothing melody, both making repeat appearances before ending on gently quivering strings.

The third movement opened with a broad theme mirroring the lyrical highlight in the first movement that paved the way for a lovely statement on clarinet. In fact, a good portion of the first part of this movement sounded like a clarinet concerto. The rest of the movement consisted of the development of the lyrical material interspersed with whispers on woodwinds in an outpouring of regret.

The finale signalled a change of mood into merriment and grandeur that nevertheless brought all the material of the previous movements into one melting pot. Rachmaninov refused to let momentary lapses into melancholy distract him and was now ready to conquer the world with renewed energy and vigour, eventually ending the symphony in thumping triumph.

The Symphony No. 2 reaffirmed Rachmaninov’s comeback after the disastrous launch of his first symphony in the late 1890s which nearly sent him into psychiatric wilderness. Earlier in the programme, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra performed Rachmaninov's , Piano Concerto No. 3 which he had completed a couple of years after the symphony and which extended his new-found success internationally.

Rachmaninov wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 mainly for an American audience, having been invited on a concert tour of the United States in 1909 as a pianist, apparently practising the solo part using a dummy instrument on the ship. Blessed with an exceptionally wide finger-span, he would most probably have intended the work to show off his own prowess at the keyboard. And what a fiendishly difficult piece it is.

Despite speeding through the almost inhumanly fast passages Rachmaninov sprinkled profusely throughout the work, Simon Trpčeski never for one moment sacrificed clarity for fluidity. His delicate touch might strike some as being a little diffident, but it enabled him to blend in and speak with, rather than talk back at the orchestra, creating a unique sense of unity between the two. During the orchestral interludes, he would gently shake his hands as he let them hang loose, the physical strain on his muscle being palpable.

It’s not as if Mr Trpčeski had little of consequence to say, though. On the contrary, there was never any doubt that he was the focus of attention. Hardly had the orchestra delivered a few quiet bars in the first movement when he began his sojourn with an endearing and exquisite melody with a strong Russian character, said to derive from chants of the Orthodox Church or other folk material. Soloist and orchestra spent a good part of the movement exploring and developing this theme, until it reappeared more subdued, and perhaps, cleansed.

The mood of the second movement alternated between whimpering sorrow and rustic euphoria. A terse lament on strings was soon taken up by the solo oboe, before the piano took it away on an extended sigh of regret. An idyllic digression by the horns was not enough to suppress the sense of foreboding on strings, from which the piano was able to break away from, for the leap into the lively dance that opened the finale.

Most of the third movement collated material from the previous two movements, but re-cast almost as a riveting hymn of joy interrupted but briefly by moments of quiet reflection. Orchestra and soloist would soar higher and higher into a prolonged tune of exultation, feeding on each other’s energy in the progress towards the glorious conclusion.

The audience’s rapturous response was a clear sign that it had been an evening of great satisfaction, but the combination of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Symphony No. 2 was a draining experience, physically and emotionally, for both the performers and the audience.