Last Saturday evening, I had the pleasure of listening to our own Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform two late-Romantic products of the fin-de-siècle: Richard Strauss’s 1897 tone poem Don Quixote and Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto (1909). Both composers were then in their 30s, the prime of their careers, and both pieces were written at least in part out of financial ambition, if not need, and for very large orchestras of 80 instrumentalists or more.
The tone poem, like Also Sprach Zarathustra (written a year prior), Don Juan (1888), and An Alpine Symphony (1915), is a work of program music, in that it seeks to evoke a specific series of events or images. It takes Cervantes’s text as its program and seeks to illustrate a few of the adventures in which the deluded would-be exemplar of chivalry partakes. Of these, perhaps the most colorful is the second that Strauss selects, the siegreiche Kampf gegen das Heer des großen Kaisers Alifanfaron, or “victorious fight against the great emperor Alifanfaron.” In this episode, the Don does battle with what he realizes only after the fact is actually a flock of sheep (the baaah-ing of which is created by brass instrumentalists “flutter-tonguing,” an effect more common in jazz). The work is replete with unusual but effective instrument combinations, most prominently the introduction of Sancho Panza’s theme by the tuba and bass clarinet, a pairing perhaps without precedent. The work features a solo cellist and violist, with some violin solos granted to the concertmaster, the cello representing the Knight, and the viola representing Sancho Panza.
The thick, heavy orchestrations that characterize Strauss and Rachmaninoff (and others such as Mahler and Wagner) match perfectly the strengths of the CSO and its legendary brass section. Dutoit was certainly aware of this, and made effective use of it orchestrally, though his conducting at times verged on being heavy-handed. Neither John Sharp nor Charles Pikler, the respective principal cellist and violist in the orchestra, was particularly loud, and thus they were at times somewhat overwhelmed by the force that Maestro Dutoit elicited from their colleagues.
It is rather surreal to listen to a maestro conduct a work when that man’s ex-wife is its definitive interpreter. Such was the experience of listening to Charles Dutoit conduct Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto (known sometimes simply as “Rach 3”). The third piano concerto is among the most demanding works in the concerto repertory, so technically exigent as to inspire the Oscar-winning Shine, which tells the story of schizoaffective pianist David Helfgott attempting to learn to play the piece. (The film was a success; however, Helfgott’s actual performances cannot be recommended.) The piece’s most celebrated interpretations are Vladimir Horowitz’s 1930 and Martha Argerich’s 1982 recordings. The problem, for both the pianist and enthusiast, is that the piece has such tough demands (technical, but also interpretive) that it is almost impossible not to come up short in at least some significant part.
The soloist, 39-year-old Nikolai Lugansky, is a Russian prodigy and ’94 silver-medal laureate of the International Tchaikovsky Competition. He was certainly technically impressive, and he hit the ethos of the piece on the head—John van Rhein for the Chicago Tribune commented on his “long and fleet” fingers, and I heard only two very small errors in the entire 45 minutes. Furthermore, excluding Horowitz and Argerich, the interpretation was strong. Dutoit overwhelmed Lugansky as he did the previous soloists, though the conducting was lush and the final strains quite as admirably evocative of Rachmaninoff’s Russian nostalgia as any—possibly even to the point of melodrama, though not distastefully so.