Between a Rach and a Yard Place
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto # 2
Johannes Brahms: Symphony # 1
Helene Grimaud (piano)
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Peter Oundjian (conductor)
Hardly a man is now alive who remembers the terrible decision of the New York Philharmonic to abort its experimental summer program in the Berkshires, an action which led to the Boston Symphony establishing itself at Tanglewood in the mid-1930’s. Except for the occasional concert at Lewisohn Stadium before 1950 or the pops type affair in Central Park of the present day, the embattled flagship orchestra of Gotham City is virtually dormant during the humid months. But the New Yorker eager for a hometown ensemble in an out of town venue need only travel forty minutes up the Saw Mill Parkway to enjoy the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (a much more consistent group than its famous brethren) anchoring a significant and serious festival at Caramoor in Katonah. A tour of the grounds is a must, highlighted by a visit to the sunken garden, created as a tribute to composer Ottorino Respighi and surrounded by walkways featuring authentic Pini di Roma. The Venetian Theater (Caramoor is in touch with its Venetian side this year, offering both Rossini’s Othello and Verdi’s Otello) boasts a solidly constructed proscenium with a tent built out from it and its acoustics are thus much warmer than those festivals which rely solely on a tent for enclosure. Considering what a humid night it was last evening, the overall sound of the orchestra was much better projected than its equivalents in Lenox, Annandale or Saratoga.
I had only heard Helene Grimaud once before and I had panned her stodgy interpretation of the Ravel Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but last evening I was very impressed with her command of the much more difficult Rachmaninoff. Sure and strong-handed, she delivered a very powerful first movement, punctuated with personal moments of rubato. When playing these concerti, one is up against the composer himself, who recorded them all, with good sound, in Philadelphia in the 1930’s. Ms. Grimaud’s nobility and grace matched even this mighty competition. St. Luke’s is actually a large chamber orchestra and their sound is unique: small and yet full-bodied. However, for the extremely lush passages in the Rach 2, they simply do not have enough strings to balance the large pianistic sonority. Conductor Peter Oundjian (former first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet) wrung all of the phrasing beauty that he could out of his talented forces, but did not have enough players on the field for a complete victory. My favorite passage in all of Rachmaninoff occurs in this piece, the opening transition in the second movement between the flute and the clarinet. However, I must have been a very bad boy in another life, for, just as this magical stroke of orchestration was about to dawn, a cellular telephone rang several times, its electronic volume far outdistancing the subtle mezzopiano of the musicians. Grimaud saved the day with a finely paced slow movement, building carefully but inexorably towards a beautiful conclusion. Her choice of tempi for the third movement was daring, the complex runs after the “Full Moon and Empty Arms” section (played gorgeously by the St. Luke’s violas) taken with considerable alacrity but accurately fashioned. Occasionally, the orchestra and the soloist were a little disparate in rhythm and some of the transitions were shoddy, but overall this was a stirring performance. The bravado ending was thrilling, the last four notes reminiscent of the bombastic manner used by the composer in his own performances. Additionally, I was touched by Ms. Grimaud’s attendance in the audience for the Brahms; so many of today’s soloists don’t seem to care one whit for the music itself.
What was disappointing in the Rachmaninoff was electrifying in the Brahms. St. Luke’s lean and mean approach to this muscular work was spectacular. The best Brahms that I heard last season was their traversal of the 3rd and 4th at Carnegie (along with a very powerful Alto Rhapsody) and so I expected and received quite a lot. Right from the outset, the first movement (with repeat) was extremely powerful, calling to mind Hans von Bulow’s appellation of the work as Beethoven’s Tenth. Especially impressive were the inner voices of the strings, emphasizing harmonic passages which had previously never seen the light of day in my thousands of hearings of the piece, and the expressive timpani work of Maya Gunji, emphasizing how much more power Brahms and Bruckner achieved with one drum than virtually any modern composer does with a dozen percussion instruments (Ms. Gunji also played the very last passages of the finale correctly, finishing just a thirty-second note later than the full orchestra-it is surprising how many fail in this crucial effect). I fully expected that deuced cell phone to ring during the great duet between violin and horn in the second movement (Tovey describes this moment as “voices ascending towards Heaven”) but we were free to relish the fine performance of the concertmistress and hornist sans reminders of the hectic life outside the tent. The poco Allegretto which followed may be the perfect movement of music; the Golden Mean by which all others are judged. Oundjian caught the rocking Mozartian flavor expertly. The last movement was a show of pure strength, the blendings of the strings and their rugged pacing extremely affecting. All in all, this was a spectacular performance and one a little unexpected for summer fare. We all relax a bit in the hot weather and, as a critic, I sometimes loosen my standards accordingly, cutting lesser performers some slack due to the languor (if not torpor) induced by the heat. But at Caramoor there is no need to compromise standards; this is music making of the highest order.
Frederick L. Kirshnit