Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony played with heart, soul and style

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.2 in E minor is a gloriously romantic work but also a long one. At around an hour there are plenty of potential pitfalls for a conductor and players: seductive invitations to linger over those luscious harmonies and beguiling melodies a little too long; to languish in the rich downy cushioned string sonorities; for brass and percussion to bellow and bang when let off the leash in the full-throttle finale. The first of conductor Kazuki Yamada and the CBSO players’ achievements in this terrific performance was that every such temptation was resisted and pitfalls skilfully steered around. The second was that it was devoid of timidity, caution or circumspection – this was Rachmaninoff with heart and soul. Yamada is very much a modern maestro; media savvy, extrovert, and audience-friendly. Interpretatively though he’s endearingly old school, a throwback to the era of flexible tempos and interpretative rubato – but always employed to illuminate the music not meretriciously for show. The symphony’s opening Largo was hushed and daringly slow; not lethargic but taut, ready to open out into the broad vistas of the Allegro moderato. The scintillating Scherzo was all sparks and coruscations from brass and percussion, while the gorgeous Adagio was a feast for the CBSO’s string players, with Eugene Tzikindelean’s sepia-tinted solo and a glorious floated theme for the cellos. Rachmaninoff’s finale is a mini concerto-for-orchestra with every wind soloist getting their moment in the spotlight and all excelling, and then the bass drum, timpani and cymbals were unleashed for the symphony’s applause-grabbing big finish.

The packed house and thunderous applause for the young South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho was a happy return to the halcyon pre-Covid days. I haven’t seen such a spontaneous audience embrace of an artist for ages but his performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 was worthy of every recall to the platform. There was a sense of wonder – not a hint of routine – about its hushed start, the solo piano notes hanging starkly in the air. For once one understood the puzzlement of the audience at the 1807 premiere – what’s he up to? In the Andante con moto Yamada encouraged the strings’ ferocity while Cho, a baby-faced Orpheus, tamed them with his luminous playing. The Allegro was vibrant and delightful with Cho unleashing the extrovert side of his pianist armoury to great effect. The concert opened with Gustav Holt’s charming miniature four-movement ‘Japanese Suite’. I suspect that it’s about as authentically Japanese as ‘The Mikado’ but it’s full of delicate musical touches, like Nikolaj Henriques’ plaintive opening bassoon solo, and some subtle pointillistic percussion touches.

Norman Stinchcombe

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