With the double bicentenary of Verdi and Wagner this year, other musical landmarks risk being eclipsed. But this October “La Verdi” commemorate the 140th anniversary of Rachmaninov’s birth with a series of concerts and lectures featuring all four of his piano concertos alongside works by other Russian greats. Assistant Conductor Jader Bignamini was joined by exciting young pianist Luca Buratti for a cross-examination of Rachmaninov and Stravinsky.

Maestro Jader Bignamini
Maestro Jader Bignamini

Boulez suggests that Stravinsky “gave music its basic shock at the beginning of this [the 20th] century”. He experimented boldy with rhythm and orchestration, and continues to be cited as a major influence by many of today’s composers including Adams, Adès and Reich. Rachmaninov represents the tradition Stravinsky reacted against: the latter strove for objectivity, dubbing himself “an inventor of music”, and he resisted the personal voice inherent in romanticism. But though this concert could easily appear to be about the death of romanticism and the emergence of modernism (which would be a funny way to celebrate Rachmaninov’s anniversary) such a reading is oversimplistic.

In handing over the knotty Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no. 3 to young 20-year-old sensation Luca Buratto, La Verdi demonstrated a great deal of faith, and they were not disappointed. Buratto has a beautiful legato combined with an expressive (and often daring) elasticity. The music poured out of him, and at the stool he adopted a relaxed manner, contorting his shoulders with jazzy dissonances, his left leg swinging in time with the music, eyes squinting in ecstasy. His playing, though, was far from lax, and save for the odd stray note, which is surely forgivable in music of this complexity, he demonstrated incredible control. Difficult phrases were imbued with reams of personality, subtle inflections, and controlled switches of colour in anticipation of key changes.

But in the Rachmaninov, the orchestra was not at its best. They often came second to Buratto and neglected to bubble through the texture when the opportunity arose. Though the violins were strong throughout and their sweet sound was well-suited to this music, the winds were slightly thin and brass interjections hesitant. There were some great moments, however: the throbbing opening of the second movement was heart-wrenching and the final movement, rollicking and full of intent, prompted an erupting ovation from the audience. But elsewhere, a rocky pulse and tentative playing meant that this piece did not have the overall impact that it could have done.

After the interval, however, the Scherzo Fantastique came off very well. The piece was an orchestration exercise composed under the tutelage of Rimsky-Korsakov, and it provides a glimpse into the creative world of Stravinsky the student. It’s brimming with wacky techniques and bold colours, and the orchestra interpreted them with skill and enthusiasm. Particularly nice was the strings’ opening swarm of notes evoking the frenzied activity of a bee-hive. This fizzles into downwards spirals from the violins counteracted by the horns’ rising minor thirds, and the effect was delightfully disorientating.

It was here that the concept for this evening’s programme became clear. This was not about the composers’ differences in approach but about their similarities. Though the Rachmaninov is indebted to the rich, lyrical style of the Russian romantics, one senses in the shimmering arpeggiating of the second movement the undeniable influence of Debussy. Similarly, the Scherzo’s slow middle section lulls us into a Debussian dreamscape full of octatonic scales and transparent textures, and there is even a romantic yearning in the “Queen Bee” melody. The carefully selected pieces, spanning the period from 1908–1913, show that they were engaged in similar processes of borrowing from their Russian predecessors (especially Tchaikovsky), from their contemporaries, and even each other. This draws us away from the sort of analysis where old romanticism yields to new modernism in a linear progression, and we are encouraged to see the projects as two coexisting and equally valid responses to the creative challenges of the time.

And what of Stravinsky’s project? The Rite of Spring was the perfect choice to sum up his “Russian Period”, but if the piece was to come off, Bignamini would have to exhibit both energy and expert control. He did both and produced a near-flawless performance. Visceral rhythms were wonderfully presented in “Ritual Abduction”, and the slower than usual tempo gave the pack of strings, tugging in unison, something extra-threatening. “Augers of Spring” was also steady, and we found ourselves lost in Stravinsky’s strange, tick-tock ostinato. Bignamini’s style is precise, driving, relaxed where it needed to be and very good for this music. Sudden changes in pace and texture were tightly managed, but at times he yielded to primitive abandon, unleashing a riot from the percussion in “Glorification of The Chosen One”, the tubas’ elephantine groans grossly offensive. When “Dance of the Earth” could seemingly get no louder, the conductor drove the orchestra on and on and produced something truly terrifying.

La Verdi produced a brilliant performance of Stravinsky that dwarfed the Rachmaninov. One suspects that this was not their intention and could have been avoided with stronger playing in the first half. Nevertheless, this was a carefully selected, thought-provoking programme featuring playing that was top-class.