The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: It takes a French pianist to make the most of Rachmaninoff

April 20, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

Often we link the nationality of a composer to the nationality of a performer. So we lean towards Russians – like pianists Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Vladimir Feltsman and Olga Kern – to perform the music of their fellow Russian Sergei Rachmaninoff (below).


But that represents a certain kind of cultural chauvinism: Polish pianists for Chopin, French pianists for Debussy and Ravel, Italian singers for Italian opera, and so on.

Yet that approach or assumption is a fallacy and doesn’t always work, as one heard so well during this past weekend’s performance of all all-Russian program by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under conductor John DeMain.

The guest soloist for Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” was Frenchman Philippe Bianconi (below), a pianist who may be second tier in name or reputation, but is first tier in talent. (He won the silver medal in the 1985 Van Cliburn Competition.)

And there was nothing second-place about the performance he turned in of the virtuosic Rhapsody. It stunned you and moved you. It was the best performance I have heard, live or recorded – and I have heard some great ones.

Moreover, the very qualities that made Bianconi’s reading stand out were the same qualities that one identifies with the French, not the Russians: a certain detachment that gives a sense of overall structure plus a combination of irony and sensuality with a good dose of playful wit (jeu d’esprit) that is inherent in the theme-and-variations format.

I recognize those qualities because, I confess, I am a lifelong Francophile.

The French relish clarity as they remain loyal to their Cartesian heritage of rational analysis and method. “La Passion de la raison et la raison de la passion” — the passion for reason and the reason for passion – go way back, even to the 17th century philosopher Pascal.

Whatever their origins, such French values all came together at the service of Rachmaninoff’s terrific inventiveness with Paganini’s famous theme, his gift for tonal color and his sense of heartfelt emotion (the famous 18th Variation that, in Bianconi’s hands, proved to have sentiment without sentimentality.)

Small, quiet and charming, Bianconi (below) is an amazingly forceful, accurate and subtle player, with a strong left hand. He brought out lots of voices and always preserved the basic harmonic and rhythmic outlines of the theme. For each of the 27 variations, he knew what the music required and what he wanted to do with it: He built both mood and meaning, and communicated them beautifully.


Bianconi is a great Rachmaninoff player. Not for nothing did he also play as an encore the opening of Rachmaninoff’s underperformed and little-known but beautiful “Corelli” Variations to loud audience approval.

I hope to hear more from Bianconi, especially in a solo recital. (He is about to undertake a tour of China playing Liszt, Ravel and Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Sonata.)

The MSO concert opened with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture,” a good curtain-raiser that showed off all the various sections of the orchestra. The composer taught orchestration at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and has been called the best orchestrator of all time. One of the composers influenced by him was Igor Stravinsky.

The concert concluded with the Metropolitan Opera bass Dean Peterson (below) joining the Madison Symphony Chorus and Orchestra for selected scenes from Mussorgsky’s opera “Boris Godunov.” (He sang the role of the embattled tsar Boris.)

The choice worked better in concept than execution.

Aside from the famous Coronation Scene – which included church bell-type gongs on stage and in the audience in a high box – the music did simply not prove very memorable or captivating.

Peterson and the chorus both sang beautifully, especially in the difficult Russian language, which was thankfully translated and projected via sur-titles. And the orchestra played with commitment and precision. But even conductor DeMain had to signal the end the piece twice to let the audience know it was over.

Not a good sign.

This was the season closer, after all, and I kept wondering: Wouldn’t a rousing version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (or maybe even his “Firebird” or “Petrushka”) have rounded the Russian circle? What about Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”? Or maybe Shostakovich’s tumultuous Fifth Symphony, or another of his symphonies.

But it was what it was, and everyone performed well – giving concertmaster Tyrone Greive, who soloed in the Mussorgsky, and his cellist wife Janet Greive, a fine sendoff into retirement after 20 years with the MSO. My criticism is of the music, not the performance or the performers.

One just would have liked to see that particular concert and this particular season end on more of a high note or crescendo than the weary and ill-fated Boris could summon.

Did you hear Philippe Bianconi in the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody? What did you think?

What did you make of the “Boris Godunov” scenes and how did you like the performance?

Let us know. Everyone is a critic.

And The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music

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