A Craggy Rachmaninoff Third

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
March 13, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Overheard as the capacity audience left Merrill Auditorium on Sunday afternoon: “That was the best concert I’ve ever heard here.”

Well, not quite, but close. Music lovers jammed the hall to hear pianist Andrew von Oeyen Play the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

They were not disappointed, but it was music director Robert Moody’s programming of two unusual works before the concerto that made for a near-perfect afternoon.

The first was a mysterious agglomeration of eight works made sometime after 1956 by Dmitri Shostakovich, entitled Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1. Some are straightforward marches and dances, with typical Shostakovich surprises and strange instrumentation..

Others are parodies of conventional waltzes, German bands and circus music. All are thoroughly delightful, but the waltzes take the cake, piling musical cliche on cliche until one expects the entire edifice to collapse under the weight of schmaltz. It doesn’t, and Shostakovich writes it all with a straight face, as if he were honestly trying to outdo Emile Waldteufel. One of them reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s “Weinerschnitzel Waltz,” with unlimited orchestral resources.

The orchestra obviously enjoyed it as much as the audience and its virtuosity at rapid tempo was little short of amazing.

Kurt Weill’s use of hackneyed forms, in his Suite from “The Three-Penny Opera,” was equally imaginative, but in the service of a darker vision. It was equally well played, especially the false fugue of the Overture and the flute and violin solos in “Polly’s Lied.” I had just written about Nico Muhle’s “Bright Mass with Canons,” and Weill’s concluding piece, “Kanonen,” with the same double meaning, was pure synchronicity.

Andrew von Oeyen’s rendition of the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 was exciting and extremely forceful. His power, however, has both advantages and drawbacks. In the first movement the piano was often in danger of drowning out the orchestra, and a dynamic range starting at mezzo forte doesn’t leave much room for a crescendo. Fortunately, the pianist’s fortissimo is so strong that the climaxes still work.

On the plus side, von Oeyen worked well in some of the more delicate dialogs with other instruments, while his volume —and some idiosyncratic emphases— brought out passages obscured in most readings of this work. He also has the quick wit to get out of trouble unnoticed. The passion in the closing bars was palpable and brought tears to the eye and the audience to its feet instantaneously.

Then he spoiled the whole thing with an encore. An encore to the Rachmaninoff Third is bad enough, like putting catsup on foie gras, but the piece he chose had enough schmaltz to make Shostakovich proud. I wish guest artists wouldn’t do that, ruining the after effects of a masterpiece, but the practice seems to be becoming more widespread.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

2 thoughts on “A Craggy Rachmaninoff Third”

  1. Sounds as if you went overboard with “Craggy” in the headline. You describe a fundamentally sound concert. For the fun of it, I’ll get out my Flip Dictionary and see if there is a softer synonym….One moment, please: Of those offered, I would choose “unlevel.” (“harsh, rocky, rough, rugged, steep, unlevel.” Such a harsh word as” “Craggy” might put off people from reading about it, thinking the concert was a bomb.

  2. Actually, I like craggy, in the sense of un-smooth, which the performance certainly was. Thank you for commenting.

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