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A Tale of Two Concertos: The Worlds of Emotion and Politics


There were two concertos on the program of the Boston Philharmonic at Jordan Hall this past Saturday, but they couldn’t have been more different, though both were written in the 20th century.

The Piano Concerto No. 3 in D-minor, op. 30 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, that wonderful, finger-busting warhorse affectionately known as “Rach 3,” was completed on September 23, 1909 and premiered on November 28 of that year. The composer, one of the greatest pianists of all time, was the soloist with the New York Symphony and conductor Walter Damrosch. He played it again only a few weeks later, this time under the baton of none other than Gustav Mahler, in a performance that Rachmaninoff “treasured.” It was a good thing that Rachmaninoff was such a virtuoso: the technical demands of this concerto are legendary-and sometimes terrifying. Joseph Hoffman, the dedicatee of the work and no chopstick-playing pianist himself, never dared to perform it in public. Decades later, Gary Graffman admitted that he should have learned the piece as a student, when he was “still too young to know fear.” Other than Rachmaninoff, the greatest performer of “Rach 3” was Vladimir Horowitz. In fact, after Horowitz played it for Rachmaninoff in the basement of the Steinway showroom in New York in 1928, with the composer realizing the orchestral part on a second piano, Rachmaninoff decided that he would never again perform his concerto in public. However, he did record it in 1939 with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, a recording I have listened to with unabated pleasure ever since I first started practicing my Czerny.

Fast forward to February 21, 2009. I wish I could add the performance by Gabriela Montero and the Boston Philharmonic to my list of favorites, but a number of crucial elements were not quite there, at least on this evening. Ms. Montero certainly has virtuoso credentials in abundance. Simply put, she is a great pianist. Do you want rapid passagework and cascades of notes? No problem. How about large leaps and massive chords? Just sit back, listen and enjoy, although I was surprised that the orchestra was often too loud and overbalanced the soloist, even though I was sitting about 20 feet from the piano. Montero negotiated “Rach 3” with impressive ease and aplomb. What was missing for this Rachmaninoff fan, however, was some heart-on-your sleeve emotion (schmaltz, if you will), a flexible tempo and poetic gestures that sent lines soaring-all the things that make this work one of the last piano concertos in the grand 19th-century tradition established by Hummel, Liszt, and Chopin and continued by Grieg, Brahms and Tchaikovsky.

Like the Rachmaninoff, the Concerto for Orchestra by the Polish composer Wiltold Lutoslawski was also written in the 20th century. It was composed in the 1950s and premiered on November 26, 1954, but this concerto belongs to an entirely different world. For one thing, Lutoslawski set out to exploit the virtuosity not of a soloist, but rather that of the 20th-century orchestra. He had a number of models in mind, but foremost was Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra of 1943.

Lutoslawski’s Concerto is also a product of the current political history, and it is not a pretty story. After the Soviet government that controlled Poland banned his First Symphony in 1948, Lutoslawski looked for a place to hide, at least musically. He described his predicament many years later: “I wrote as I was able, since I could not yet write as I wished…. I decided to begin again-to work from scratch on my sound language… Eventually, I developed a style that combined functional music with elements of folk music… [T]he Concerto for Orchestra was the climax of this nationalistic, folk-based music-a work that not only spoke to a politically defeated people, but that continues to touch musicians of many lands today.”

Polish folk songs indeed influence this work, but there are political overtones as well. If you listen closely in the toccata section of the last movement, you can hear how Lutoslawski paid homage to another 1948 victim of a repressive Soviet regime-Dimitri Shostakovich-by interweaving the notes D, E-flat, C and B-natural. Translated into letters, these pitches spell out DSCH, Shostakovich’s musical signature.

The members of the Boston Philharmonic under Music Director and Conductor Benjamin Zander played their virtuosic concerto with a level of enthusiasm, commitment and skill that made the performance of this important work memorable.

Mark Kroll, a harpsichordist  and fortepianist well known to Boston music audiences, has toured extensively as performer, lecturer, and leader of master classes in Europe, South America, the Balkans, and the Middle East. His most recent book is Johann Nepomuk Hummel: A Musician and His World. His website is

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  1. I agree with Mark Kroll’s assessment of Montero’s playing, although I wonder if more lyricism and passion would have been audible had the orchestra not overpowered the piano so much of the time. I enjoyed Montero’s improvisation on “Three Blind Mice” (contrapuntal variations that sounded sometimes like Bach, sometimes like Mozart imitating Bach) and would be curious to learn why Kroll didn’t discuss the improvisation in his review.

    Comment by Jonathan Cheney — March 2, 2009 at 3:43 pm

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