Although Bela Bartók (1881-1945) and Sergei Rachmaninoff (1872-1943) were major music figures in the first half of the 20th century, their styles couldn’t be more different. The Hungarian Bartók tried to fashion a personal style built on his deep knowledge of folk music while the Russian Rachmaninoff continued to explore the romantic style he inherited from the previous century.
Resident EMF Associate Conductor José-Luis Novo led one of the two student Young Artists Orchestras in an exploration of Bartók’s brief Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. posth. (1907-08) and Rachmaninoff’s sprawling Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1907). Although the compositions are exact contemporaries, what strange bedfellows they make!
There is a story about the Violin Concerto (of course), which explains its being published after the composer’s death. Bartók wrote the work for violinist Stefi Geyer, a love interest. The two grew apart, however, and each locked a copy of the score away; the work wasn’t premiered until 1958 after both had died! Anecdotally, the slow first movement represents Stefi, the following Allegro giocoso, Bartók.
Friday night’s soloist for the Violin Concerto was the distinguished Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, Glenn Dicterow. The work begins with the solo violin spinning out a contemplative tune. Slowly the rest of the strings enter, echoing the opening line — first by twos, and then finally the whole ensemble. Novo’s pacing and Dicterow’s warm tone ushered in this Andante sostenuto with affection and care. Violinist and orchestra gave a stunningly beautiful performance.
The second movement is a more sectional affair, with several changes of mood and character, starting with an impudent outburst from the soloist. The entire orchestra joins in for some jeering, some mocking and, surprisingly enough, occasional wafts of Straussian romanticism floating through the proceedings. Dicterow, Novo and orchestra turned in a performance that advocates for more hearings of this obscure work.
The dismal reception of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony sent the composer to the therapist, and he actually left Russia in part to work on the Second Symphony ten years later (the unrest in his home country certainly influenced his decision to leave as well). The Second was written somewhat secretively, but the work is an assured, confident masterpiece, and the successful premiere took place in St. Petersburg with the composer as conductor.
The first movement begins with a Largo that presents several ideas that reappear throughout the symphony, including the opening ominous phrase intoned by the low strings answered by perfectly-articulated wind chords. Maestro Novo’s fluid conducting style encouraged the young musicians to join him in the ebb and flow of Rachmaninoff’s musical breathing. After almost five minutes, the seething Allegro moderato appears, with surging string melodies and turbulent passages.
The second movement Allegro molto begins with a romping theme given to the horn, followed by incisive string lines, very cleanly played. Lots of bright percussion helps enliven the proceedings. More lyric sections, lovingly presented, provide contrast.
The Adagio is the heart of the symphony — it contains the type of music after which Hollywood modeled its romantic scores. Interestingly, the first five notes outline the exact same interval structure as the opening of the Bartók concerto, but to a much different effect. A beautiful, languid clarinet solo (almost perfectly played) follows the opening violin lyricism.
The main theme of the Finale (Allegro vivace) is a raucous affair for the entire orchestra. Themes from the previous movements pop up along the way, including the gorgeous Adagio string tune from the third movement. The entire work ends in the triumphant glow of E major.
One is struck with the strong musicianship of these young players who have only been playing together for a couple of weeks. Much of the success must go to Maestro Novo (and the other faculty), whose leadership and musicality urge the orchestra to play at its very best.