That the music of Rachmaninov and Bartók, despite them being almost exact contemporaries, rarely appears on the same concert programme speaks to their vastly different styles. Rachmaninov clutched at the romanticism of the late 19th century and refused to let go; while Bartók force-fed it into the atonal model of the early 20th century to produce fascinating distortions. By combining Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2 and Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 in E minor on Friday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave us a rare glimpse into how similar in spirit the two composers could be. And it was a thoroughly enjoyable insight.

Gil Shaham © Luke Ratray
Gil Shaham
© Luke Ratray

Although Bartók was not a violinist by training, his compositional skills for the instrument were good enough for Zoltán Székely, a friend and virtuoso violinist, to commission a concerto from him. Bartók proposed a one-movement work consisting of a theme and variations. Instead, Székely wanted a traditional concerto in three movements. Bartók obliged, with the second movement consisting of a theme and six variations, and the third being variations of material from the first.

It was this sense of mischievous non-conformity in Bartók that soloist Gil Shaham captured best on Friday. Despite twists and turns in the material, his consistency in tone and manner befitted the structure of the work. After luring us into a sense of comfort that everything was as expected with the lyrical but distressing opening theme, he catapulted us into the 12-tone second theme with a vengeance. The burping brass that followed was a good indication of what Bartók thought of atonal serialism. After a frenzied and crisply articulated development, he slid into a series of hard-hitting double stops and screeched to a halt.

Conductor Stéphane Denève put his left index finger to his lips to signal absolute silence before moving his baton to begin the second movement. That the pianississimo orchestral opening was audible must be due to the superb acoustics of the Walt Disney Concert Hall – anywhere else this would have been a risky move. Gil Shaham’s versatility was on full display here, taking us on a roller-coaster ride of melodic charm, shrieking agitation and cat-and-mouse games with parts of the orchestra. He was at his cheekiest in the fifth variation against the snare drum, celesta, harp glissandos and a capricious flute. In the conclusion to the concerto, themes from the first movement were kneaded into a variety of shapes and degrees of softness, with the soloist and orchestra coming together against a crashing brass fanfare.

One characteristic that does link the works on the programme together is thematic unity. After the failed première of his first symphony in the hands of a possibly drunken Glazunov, Rachmaninov suffered a breakdown and wasn't able to compose for a few years, having to seek psychiatric help. Yet in his comeback in the Second Symphony ten years later he defiantly moulded an hour-long work out of a short motif on low strings in the first movement.

Probably trying to avoid the trap of over-sentimentalising the work, Stéphane Denève kept up a fairly brisk pace, yet didn’t lose sight of the subtleties of orchestral colour in the score. The prominence he gave to the violas in the third movement, in particular, gave it added suppleness that made up for the mildly rushed clarinet solo.

I’m often tempted to think that the first part of the opening movement is a long-drawn out introduction to the most lyrical snippet that surfaces one third of the way into the movement. Like a shy debutante, the segment comes forth only after much coaxing by the cor anglais, the clarinet and tremolo strings. Tension and expectation repeatedly build up, to the extent that when the lyrical phrase appears, it feels all too short and fleeting. By steadily moving along, the orchestra made the sense of expectation and gratification less prominent.

On the contrary, the bouncy second movement was done to perfection. The galloping rhythm that gave way to a sweeping exclamation kept up its pressure and prevented sentimentality from getting in the way of the business at hand. All elements were brought together in a mood of celebration in the finale, interspersed with familiar faces from the first three movements on an undercurrent of rollicking tunes.

Although the careers of Rachmaninov and Bartók took them to America, where they both died, there is no evidence that they ever met.  Even if they had, they could have easily fallen out.  The LA Phil on Friday taught us that there are more similarities than meet the eye between the two composers, and what a fascinating lesson it was.