Symphony No.2 in E-minor, Op.27
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Reviewed by: Ateş Orga
Reviewed: 28 August, 2020
Venue: Concertgebouw, Amsterdam [live webcast]
Rachmaninov – guardian noble of old Russia, the “steel and gold” legacy of his aristocratic, land-owning birthright, his art the soul, the mirror, of his country’s might and splendour, its pessimism and melancholy. Patrician-faced, stooped-shouldered, gaunt, “a creature not of our time,” the American Abram Chasins felt, “but rather one from some historical era of past glories that he alone seemed to remember”. Music, he avowed, should “speak from the heart,” it should tell of a composer’s “love affairs, his religion, the books which have influenced him, the pictures he loves … I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament, and outlook. My music is the product of my temperament”. The close-of-an-era Tsarist Second Symphony (1906-07) glows in intense Slavic feeling – the climactically glorious A major Adagio. High tragedy, philosophical musing, dark forces – the introduction to the minore first movement. Boisterous spirit, ferocious attack, challenging textures – the A minor duple-time scherzo placed second. Grandiose triumph, clamorous bells – the maggiore finale.
I’ve never tired of the piece. But I do tire of many performances. In particular those that vulgarise the nostalgic element, striving to exaggerate/melodramatise the tempo structure or to sensationalise the virtuosic aspects of the orchestration. Taking 64 minutes, omitting the first movement repeat, Andris Nelsons, forty-one but looking older, carrying his authority with weight and bearing, found spacious room to let the music breath, attentive to all manner of phrasings, articulations and subsidiary details, playing to the historic acoustic of the hall (at a restricted 350/18% audience capacity). With a lengthy, measured introduction re-imagined almost as a separate prefatory ‘movement’, the opening Allegro made a point of lyricising its underlying moderato qualification, nowhere more so than in the second subject, the oboe and clarinet thirds magically answered by ruminative first violins and cellos. Fancifully a Latvian Baltic reading glimpsing neighbouring Russia through the window, yet with a a different kind of plush, in places more reminiscent of Liszt Faust than Tchaikovsky Fatum. The Scherzo cantered, embodying a horizoned Eisenstein scenario. The Adagio soared starwards, steering a long-lined northern course somewhere between Wagner and Boyar romance. Like the finely calibrated corners of the Finale, its elevated emotion, the aching consumation of its passion, the delirium of its aftermath, sent shivers. I’ve rarely heard it so rapturous, Nelsons visibly overcome. Lines from a poem by JoAnn Falletta, Saying goodbye, came to mind: “But those filaments are fragile bright and dusty pieces of time that evaporate into the air … through them I stood in the middle of miracles.”
What impressed throughout was Nelson’s articulate, thespian paragraphing, the contour, curve, climax, cadence and cyclic current of the music never for a moment short-changed, tempo and rubato acutely tuned. His generation of tension, incident piled upon incident, the sense of gravity and mounting organic growth (culminant pages not least), never lapsed. The bigness, the symphonic believability, of Rachmaninov was all permeating. Distanced, the RCO, with its superlative line-up of section principals and warmest, darkest-toned of string departments, rose to the occasion magnificently, holding the picture, opening the throttle, lending wonderful solo glints. The quality of full-throated soft pizzicatos on display, the unanimity of brass chording, the tight, characterfully responsive kettledrums, such musicianship, doesn’t transpire every day. According Nelsons the kind of support and respect, the co-operation and encouragement from within, that they used to honour the late Mariss Jansons, his mentor and compatriot, here was an orchestra majestically sure of its station, command and brilliance. A thrilling encounter.