Rachmaninov as We Never Heard
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro, K.492: Overture
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Concerto in F sharp, op.20
Sergei Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, op.27: 3. Adagio (arr. Namoradze)
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A Major “Italian”, op.90
Nicolas Namoradze (piano)
Pegasus: The Orchestra, Karem Habkoyan (conductor)
(© Emma Kazaryan)
Nicolas Namoradze, born of Georgian parents and raised in Hungary, caught my attention soon after he was declared a winner of the Honens International Piano Competition in Calgary, Canada, and at that time I commented warmly on his New York debut at Zankel Hall/Carnegie Hall. Since then his career too has taken off: recording contracts with Steinway Artists label and the equally prestigious British record label Hyperion, tons of solo and orchestral engagements in Europe, Canada and the US and at major music festivals.
The concert with Pegasus: The Orchestra was, to the best of my knowledge, his NYC concerto debut and for that event he presented not only the infrequently played Alexander Scriabin Piano Concerto but augmented his participation with a solo, the NY premiere of his own arrangement of the Adagio from Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2.
In my decades‑long concert-attending career, Namoradze was the first non‑Russian performer who played this concerto and he did it justice. Although I recognize and appreciate many felicitous moments in the youthful concerto by the 24 year old Scriabin, to this day I am not totally sold on this piece which mixes numerous very attractive fragments next to ones which evince the composer’s inexperience. Still, one can already recognize the composer’s monumental talent, especially in the lyrical fragments that abound. It seems obvious that the work has neither been getting much mileage nor is being performed by pianists other than Russians, who seem to hold this early Scriabin composition in higher esteem than the majority of their colleagues. But even the plausible excuse of nationalistic loyalty does not seem the have been universally applicable.
Scriabin, dissatisfied with the original score of his Concerto, made some corrections of his earlier blunders in orchestration. However, even that didn’t stop the great composer and arbiter-of-taste Nikolai Rimsky‑Korsakov to still refer to the score as a “piece of filth”. Wow! One may ask: is it really that bad? Yet, Scriabin went on to perform his concerto numerous times and in 1911, he appeared in Moscow under the baton of his classmate Sergei Rachmaninov. Four years later, when Rachmaninov attempted to celebrate his colleague and friend’s death, he himself took up the work and performed it more than once.
So how good is this concerto is after all? Perhaps it is useless to compare it with the better conceived early works of Rachmaninov, as Scriabin does not attempt to imitate his already famous colleague: he allows for his score to be more whimsical, more Chopinesque, to have its own flavor. If we compare this Scriabin early venture into the orchestral world with Rachmaninov works from the same period, it doesn’t stand up very well technically. Rachmaninov’s First Concerto is more dramatic, virtuosic and better-constructed (Rachmaninov was Scriabin’s colleague at the Conservatory, and his first concerto was modeled after Tchaikovsky’s; not the worst standard...).
However, with all the reservations that Rimsky‑Korsakov expressed so pungently, there are still some impressive moments in the early Scriabin work. The piece opens in a wistful, Romantic manner, and the piano not so much enters the narration as it sneaks in. The character of the first movement, with its unending ornamental Chopinesque figurations, runs, and filigreed cascades very much recalls other early Scriabin piano pieces, and perhaps more than anything else, his Second Piano Sonata, where the main theme is interlaced with elaborate figurations. Here, in the Piano Concerto, the solo instrument interacts nicely with the French horn and then for the duration of the movement the orchestra takes a leading role rather than accompanying. Thus, on one hand, we hear some refined textures and interacting instruments, but on the other hand, there remains a sense of inexperience with building a large, cohesive musical form in the concerto. The first movement is not only surprisingly brief, but also comes to a surprise end as if Scriabin suddenly decided: “OK, I had enough with this one, now I have two more movements to take care of.”
If I have my concerns about the first movement, somewhat truncated and undeveloped, Allegro, I consider the second movement, Andante, as a true gem. The mood is dreamy, whimsical, full of inspiration. It is conceived in the form of theme and variations and opens with a lovely clarinet solo statement of the theme, which the piano later joins, followed by five well defined, characteristic variations. These are also composed in early-Scriabin style, and as such, their model could be any of Tchaikovsky ballet scores. To these ears, it is by far the most memorable and compelling music of the 27 minute‑long score. I suppose my opinion may seem tame by comparison with the one of Dmitry Bashkirov, a great Russian pianist and pedagogue, who heaped praises on that Andante: “There’s the incredibly beautiful introduction, and the first variation is just a breath of fresh air, like when you open a window on a winter evening and air flows into the room. I think it’s an absolutely beautiful moment.” And then: “with early Scriabin, which resembles Rachmaninov’s musical language, it shouldn’t sound like anything Rachmaninov could have written. It has its own sound world and flavor–it’s less opulent, more piercing, more nervous.”
The Finale (Allegro moderato) features something that one could call “an almost-full-theme”: romantic, full‑blooded and ardent; but again, as in the first movement, going nowhere. Here Scriabin offers the opportunity for piano concerto virtuosity, with some moments that one could almost mistake for already mentioned Scriabin’s colleague and classmate, Rachmaninov. In this movement, there was the most visible and effective collaboration and unity between the ever-flamboyant pianist and the engaged and inspired orchestra and their conductor Karen Habkoyan, who was a sympathetic collaborator and partner.
As for Namoradze, from the first entrance he showed his formidable skills as a pianist: a nice, limpid but resonant touch, warm sound and the ability to negotiate all those lacy arabesques with seeming effortlessness. In the manner of chamber music, he gracefully interacted with the musicians of the orchestra and conductor who obviously provided fine accompaniment, something that would have been a much harder task with a lesser ensemble.
Regardless of how impressive Mr. Namoradze’s playing was in the Scriabin Piano Concerto–and it was very impressive!–he stole the show with his transcription of the Adagio from Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. There are those who dismiss transcribing orchestra scores for piano, claiming that it will never capture the sound of the “real” orchestra instruments and/or grandeur of orchestral writing. Rachmaninov himself probably didn’t think so, for otherwise he would not have given us his own marvelous transcription of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream.
What Mr. Namoradze achieved in his rendition of the famous Andante, probably one of most famous themes in Rachmaninov orchestral output, was creating an authentic, idiomatic, and natural sounding score that seemed created for the piano by composer himself. In his version, our transcriber permitted–at least some of us!–to forget the origins of the material and created a large canvas poem for the piano in an authentic style and idiom. The melodies flew easily and the arabesques and filigree passages weaved through the pages in unforced, natural way.
Pianistically, it was playing in a grand manner and one that was, perhaps consciously, modeled on the composer himself or perhaps his greatest interpreter, Vladimir Horowitz, minus the eccentricities of the grand wizard of the piano. In his approach to piano playing, Namoradze possesses that slightly capricious, free manner of playing that ideally suited the vocal melodic lines that faithfully imitate the orchestral instruments. With no apparent effort he was able to create an infinite variety of colors and shades of dynamics, from the most delicate to thunderous, but never banging. And what’s even more important was the singing quality of his sound, which was also refined, subtle, selective in all registers of the piano and dynamic spectrum. That Rachmaninov’s score sounded authentic under his fingers didn’t surprise me all that much, as I still harbored in my memory a fearsome, supremely commanding and authoritative performance of Rachmaninov’s First Sonata that Namoradze presented a few seasons back.
I envision that the transcription we heard–which has been already published–should attract many virtuosos in need of an impressive and novel Romantic score or alternative to better known pieces by Rachmaninov. It is a demanding but extremely rewarding arrangement: I would place it alongside such great transcriptions as the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky “Pathétique” Symphony arranged by the revered Russian pianist and composer, Samuel Feinberg.
I have not mentioned other works on the program: the opening one, Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, and the closing one, Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony “Italian”. Pegasus is a modest‑sized orchestra and, as such, one wouldn’t expect the opulent sound of large ensembles. It would be also unfair to compare this motivated and ambitious ensemble to the other, better established and better rehearsed orchestras.
It has some fine free‑lance players both in the string sections and in the winds, but during this performance, there were numerous problems with the balance between the sections. Too often, perhaps because of the paucity of the string section and what seemed an inadequate volume, the winds were masking the string sound.
Mr. Habkoyan preferred swift tempos which on the one hand brought the needed excitement but, on the other hand, caused some moments of breathlessness. It would be unfair to compare this motivated and ambitious ensemble of free‑lancers to the better established and better rehearsed orchestras. This time the quality and intonation of winds was up to the task though not exemplary and the strings could have been more prominent and distinct. Perhaps the shallow stage of Merkin Hall requires a more careful seating arrangement which could conceivably improve the matters of balance: here the strings too often sounded impoverished when confronted with winds, the timpani could be too loud and that also affected the balance between the sections. But if one could have wished for more refinement and fine‑tuning, that was compensated for by the high energy and enthusiasm of the players who responded well to the vigorous and bouncy conducting of Mr. Habkoyan.