Pittsburgh Symphony presents the brilliance of Rachmaninoff
The power of positive suggestion can be profound. It enabled Sergei Rachmaninoff to compose one of his most successful masterpieces, one that headlines the next weekend of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra subscription concerts.
The Russian composer was depressed and apathetic for more than a year after the failure of his First Symphony in 1897. Finally, he went to see a Moscow physician who had successfully treated his aunt. Dr. Nicholas Dahl used hypnosis, telling Rachmaninoff at each session that he would soon begin to compose a concerto with ease and produce excellent quality. And so it was. The resulting work is exciting and so melodically memorable that one of its tunes was turned into a pop song.
Markus Stenz will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Jan. 11-13 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall. The program is Claude Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral,” Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Behzod Abduraimov as soloist, Ferruccio Busoni’s “Berceuse elegaique,” and Alexander Scriabin’s “The Poem of Ecstasy.”
The German conductor, who will be making his local debut, is enjoying an international career. He is chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and conductor in residence of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in South Korea.
He says the Pittsburgh Symphony program is “a wonderful treat to the audience to hear music from the late romantic symphonic era where pianistic creativity transcends into the symphonic world, each piece in its own unique way. In Debussy’s case with the help of British composer Colin Matthews. In Rachmaninoff we hear a perfect dialogue of piano and orchestra. In Busoni we hear the most intimate music — almost chamber music like. And from this intimacy the orchestra launches into Scriabin’s orgiastic splendor.”
The concert will open with the American premiere of English composer Colin Matthews’ arrangement of Debussy’s piano prelude “La cathedrale engloutie” (The Sunken Cathedral). Matthews has made orchestral versions of both books of Debussy’s piano preludes.
“I think Colin has a marvelous sense of orchestral color and, since he is a fantastic composer in his own right, he has found ingenious ways to transfer the mood of Debussy’s piano music to the orchestra and not just the notes,” says Stenz. “In order to do so he goes way beyond a mere technical orchestration into the realm of sound creation.”
The soloist for the Rachmaninoff concerto is returning after his successful Heinz Hall debut in 2017, when he played Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Just 28, Abduraimov records for Decca.
Scriabin is mainly known for his piano music and “The Poem of Ecstasy,” which is also the fourth of his five symphonies. Rightly described in the symphony’s program notes as “opulently post-Romantic,” the piece has the same title as a lengthy poem the composer wrote. The poem was published in 1906, the same year he began writing the orchestral piece. Nevertheless, Scriabin wanted conductors and audiences to approach the piece as “pure music,” without detailed programmatic associations.
Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.