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RachFest Ends with an Exclamation Point

Jones Hall
01/19/2012 -  and January 21, 22
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Vocalise, op. 34/14 – Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 – Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Houston Symphony, Hans Graf (conductor)

H. Graf (© Christian Steiner)

Although it got off to a slow start, the final concert of the Houston Symphony's three part "RachFest" ended with a bang. Hans Graf's somnambulant take on the Vocalise was fussy and overemphasized the subdivisions of the pulse. The immortal melody and lush harmonies plodded along instead of flowing naturally forward. The orchestra followed the baton's every move, but seemed stuck in sotto voce mode throughout the piece.

Fortunately, Kirill Gerstein and Graf were a near-perfect pair in the concerto that followed. As in his wonderful performance of the third concerto earlier in the series, Gerstein mustered effortless virtuosity and matched it with probing but not intrusive interpretive decisions. Graf, always a reliable accompanist, proved infinitely more successful than Edward Gardner in following the pianist's every move, resulting in an orchestral sound that was more confident and in sync with the soloist. Gerstein's playing in quiet passages is fascinating. His voicing in incredibly complex textures is impeccable, and subtle nuances always make his performances unique and personal. The orchestra responded with wonderful sonorities throughout, from lush strings to the tastefully rendered clarinet solo in the second movement. The thrilling conclusion of the work and the standing ovation that followed meant that Gerstein had finished his pianistic marathon, and he rewarded the audience's response with an imaginative encore. Principal cellist Brinton Averil Smith came forward to join in the third movement from Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata, and the duo limned long lines and rapturous arcs, achieving the perfect combination of lyricism and momentum that was missing in Graf's Vocalise.

The performance of the Third Symphony after intermission continued in the same vein. Graf and his orchestra basked in the richly colored orchestration, with strings extravagantly lush and horns gloriously sonorous, especially in the second theme of the first movement. Flute and oboe were especially fine in their lyrical solos, and bassoon and horn placed their athletic rhythmic figures perfectly within the texture. Graf pushed the work forward throughout, with refreshingly brink tempos and rhythmic tautness that drove the piece forward. Even in the middle movement, whose long melodies were beautifully phrased, an unceasing energy could be felt. This continued throughout the third movement, which featured stunning climactic sounds from the brass and a technically perfect execution of the quirky coda.

An announcement before the concert indicated that there will be another three-part festival celebrating an undisclosed composer next season. One hopes that it will offer a finer balance of hits and works from off the beaten path than the RachFest did.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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