One of the most successful children of perestroika, the Russian National Orchestra didn’t venture too far from its heritage for an evening at Lincoln Center’s Geffen Hall, playing a rather short all-Rachmaninov program. The two works selected were the famous Second Piano Concerto, dating from the beginning of the composer’s career and the lesser known Symphonic Dances, his final opus. The choice gave listeners an opportunity to reassess their opinion about Rachmaninov’s place in the canon and to ruminate on consistency versus evolution in his style.

Kirill Karabits © Konrad Cwik
Kirill Karabits
© Konrad Cwik

The biggest objection the cognoscenti have with respect to Rachmaninov’s works has less to do with the perceived lack of rigor in some of them but more with their popularity. Even more upsetting for them, his most ardent admirers were exactly those that couldn’t care less for 20th-century music. The "last great Russian romantic” label isn’t unreasonably stuck on Rachmaninov. It’s difficult to deny that the world he was trying to reflect in his music isn’t closer to Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, Turgenev and Chekhov, than it is to Stravinsky and Prokofiev. The composer himself commented in 1939: “I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new. I have made an intense effort to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.”

Composed at the very beginning of the 20th century, with its mixture of virtuosic and poetic veins, with its memorable tunes, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor is arguably his most popular work. Mikhail Pletnev, a fabulous musician who has always professed an affinity for Rachmaninov, offered the public the chance to understand what he believes this music is all about. From the slow, probing chords, at the very beginning, to the final, cascading ones, he seemed to transfigure the music beyond an easy recognition. As impassive as always, not making the slightest attempt to show off his technical abilities, Pletnev somehow altered dynamics and rhythms, added question marks to affirmative statements, conveying a fresh perspective on the inner workings of the score. His ability to shed light on the shifting harmonies that lie at the basis of all Rachmaninov's heart-wrenching melodies was outstanding. Unfortunately, at many points during the performance, the level of communication between pianist and orchestra, conducted by Kirill Karabits, wasn’t where it was supposed to be. That was a big surprise, considering Pletnev’s special relation with an ensemble that he founded in 1990 and who remains its Artistic Director. An appreciative public, hoping for more, was offered only a single encore, a dreamy, almost Debussyian version of Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, Kk 9.

After the intermission, Karabits, making his New York debut, steered an impressive performance of the Symphonic Dances, proving that the strong reviews received as chief conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for the last decade are well deserved. He emphasized the satirical hints now appearing in Rachmaninov’s writing. The evergreen melodies – such as the one played by the alto saxophone in the first movement – were permitted to shine. In the last part, Karabits succeeded in maintaining the proper equilibrium between opposite tendencies: the obsessively pessimistic Dies irae motif and the hopeful theme from an Orthodox liturgical chant that Rachmaninov had previously used in his All-Night Vigil. The Andante con moto – with its stumbling waltz rhythms, bringing to memory the melancholy in Sibelius’ Valse triste, but also the dissonances in Strauss’ Salome – was the most successful of the three segments. Overall, the RNO sounded a well-oiled machine, with a perfect balance between strings and winds, responding eagerly and accurately to Karabits changes of direction.

After public clamoring, the orchestra played three encores: an arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, The Russian Sailors’ Dance from Glière’s ballet The Red Poppy, and Mykola Lysenko’s Overture to Taras Bulba. Crowd-pleasing or not, the last two examples of music composed in Rachmaninov’s time easily demonstrated – by contrast – why his music is so special.