The line-up looked fabulous on paper: colorful, late-Romantic and 20th-century works by Respighi, Ravel and Rachmaninov performed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda and featuring the sensational Fazil Say. The opening number, Ottorino Respighi’s Burlesca for Orchestra got things off to a promising start. Intriguing instrumentation, dance-like motifs and shimmering ostinato in the percussion and strings reminiscent of film music made the Burlesca a lighthearted amuse-bouche which whetted our appetites nicely for meatier fare to follow.

Fazil Say © Mustafa Toygun Ozdemir
Fazil Say
© Mustafa Toygun Ozdemir

And meatier Ravel's G major piano concerto certainly is. Despite frequent use of jazz elements, it has little to do with relaxed lounge music but is a mind-bogglingly virtuosic pianistic endeavor requiring fingers of steel and trills of satin. From the opening downbeat the piano is present and accounted for, and though not a lengthy work, it packs considerable power into its brief 25 minutes. Fazil Say is certainly a fascinating figure – from his political escapades, recordings hailed as “maverick” and compositional prowess, he is clearly much more than a bunch of fingers, and I was looking forward to hearing his reading of the Ravel with all its opportunity for brilliance and color. On a positive note, it was wonderful to hear the fluidity of sound and complete lack of stress with which Say navigated the piano. The beginning of the second movement was played with unabashed intimacy.

What grew increasingly frustrating overall was the lack of core to his sound, particularly in the slow movement, which did not carry over an orchestra which was not in any way overpowering in its volume. Even in the most transparent sections, it felt almost like Say was hiding in the sound of the orchestra, his own voice muffled as if encapsulated by cotton wool. There were also numerous times where the orchestra was not terribly synced – and although I wouldn’t go so far as to call the performance sloppy, it did seem like one more orchestral rehearsal would have done a world of good all round. That being said, the audience seemed more convinced than I, and Say was hauled to the stage for a beautiful, intimate encore, the first of Satie’s haunting Gnossienne.

During the interval, the thought struck me that Russia around the fin de siécle must have been an imposing and unforgiving musical scene to navigate. Rachmaninov’s First Symphony suffered a première so catastrophic that it plunged him into a depression from which it took him years and prolonged medical attention to recover. The St Petersburg disaster rocked his soul so heavily that he did not put pen to paper for nearly three years. He subsequently forbade any further performances, and it was nearly 50 years later that it was rediscovered and admitted into the orchestral canon. After its première, which was certainly not helped by a conductor (Glazunov) who was likely drunk at the helm, Cesar Cui went so far as to write “If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students were to compose a programme symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr Rachmaninov's, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell”.

Though this assessment seems slightly harsh, I agree that the First cannot be considered representative of Rachmaninov’s best by any stretch. The gorgeous, eternal melodic phrases which resound in the soul and stay in the ear are few and far between in this early composition. Motivic snippets repeat busily over each other but few ideas really resonate. The syncopated second movement is so full of noodling that, although not completely without charm, it borders on the repetitive. The first movement is fun and bombastic, but comes across as over-busy more than once; much ado about little substance. The most successful movement is the finale which is trumpet and percussion-heavy and rich with rhythmic interplay. The shifts between gritty string sounds and muted horn were particularly effective. It also bears mentioning that the Symphoniker, despite the confident lead of conductor Gianandrea Noseda also did not have their best night. Despite lovely moments, the ensemble could not find the confident groove of which they are capable, and more than once things went sideways in terms of ensemble, intonation and good, old-fashioned accuracy.