Enthusiastic fans heartily welcomed Michael Tilson Thomas back to the Koussevitzky Shed Saturday night after a few years’ absence for a memorable concert which started with Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral morsel Dubinushka. Inspired by a Russian folk song, this wholesome entertainment seems somewhat tainted by screwed-up semantics. With all his brilliant orchestration, Rimsky managed completely to shake off any traces of the alleged folk song source. Forget about the 1905 revolutionary context of its composition: no hint of the oppression that led to the revolution wafts from it, nor do we hear of the endless forms of its bloody consequences. The only sign of struggle came from the sections playing slightly out of sync in the beginning, but that was of course quickly remedied. Nothing in the tame and fluffy piece foreshadowed what followed in the Rachmaninov’s D Minor Concerto.
Alexander Malofeev, a virtuoso with a bit of reputation for extremes, having barely finished the first pass of the main theme, took off with a breakneck speed. It struck me as reckless, thrilling and impossible for the orchestra to catch up to – New York audiences of 90 years ago must have felt something of the kind when the young Horowitz brought Rach 3 to them, if his early recordings offer any proof. MTT and the orchestra kept pace maintaining clarity and elegance, but the pianist’s fluid line still left a general impression that he’d gotten away. There came a moment to relax with the orchestral interlude, the rollercoaster climbing up the curve, and then by the recapitulation it even seemed that the soloist and the orchestra were at peace – a feeling blown away by the tortured and idiosyncratic cadenza, with soulful oboe response, predicting the gloomy landscape of the initial bars of the adagio. Broad tempi sharply contrasted with brilliant passages all the way into the third movement, where, in the little cadenza leading up to the optimistic finale, the pianist slowed down to a heart stopping moment with a welcome catharsis, judging by at least one gentleman next to me who broke into dopamine-infused laughter.
Rach 3 taxes the pianist tremendously, and it may occasionally tire out a listener as well, if it relentlessly pushes the same button. Nothing of the sort occurred this time; it breathlessly riveted from the first gentle waves in the orchestra to the triumphant finale. I am a true believer in the exaggerated accelerandi and ritardandi that we experienced on Saturday; count me among the converts.
With Malofeev’s encore, a lovely piano version of the Nutcracker’s Pas de Deux from the pen of Mikhail Pletnev, the extensive Russian theme of the weekend came to a close. It was time to return to Americana.
Copland’s Third Symphony offered a shining if obsolete conveyance for a trip home guided by MTT and the BSO. The gently swaying tempi of the first movement breathed with spotless and perfectly harmonious clarity. Possibly influenced by Jeremy Eichler’s wonderfully warm article about Michael Tilson Thomas in the Globe [HERE], the gorgeous and ideally coordinated sounds summoned up Leonard Bernstein for me.
The scherzo both harkened back to the symphonic tradition and entertained in its listener-friendly, Disney-like style. The last movement Molto Deliberato pleased the ear as it developed the familiar Fanfare For The Common Man after gently introducing it in the flute section; by the time it arrived to the powerhouse of trumpets and trombones, it rewarded the listener as a musical idea, not as Agitprop.
It sounded so harmonious, so inclusive, so New Deal . . . and so sadly antiquated, especially compared to the eerily relevant Rachmaninov and Rimsky.
Victor Khatutsky is a software developer who reviewed music as a US-based freelancer for the Kommersant Daily of Moscow. He has been known for occasionally traveling long distances to catch his favorite performers.