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Throughout the October 22 concert of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, presented in Greensboro's War Memorial Auditorium, the fingerprints of the musicianship and refined string virtuosity of Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky were evident everywhere. His program sandwiched a real rarity between two audience favorites.
No one has written music more evocative of the world of Fairies than Felix Mendelssohn. Long before setting incidental music for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the composer had written, at the age of 17, the miraculous Overture. Such ethereal music needs and here received deft touches. The rapid high violins seemed to be scurrying on tiptoe across quicksilver, the two sections played ever so quietly as one, with tone and phrasing in lockstep. The entire orchestra was at its best, giving proper weight to humorous portions – the bray of Bottom with his head transformed into that of an ass, and the heavy stamping passage associated with the Rustic's vigorous bergomask.
In 1927, Sergei Rachmaninov took a sabbatical year away from concretizing and completed his Concerto No. 4 in g minor, Op. 40, in August. According to Barrie Marytn, in Rachmonino[v] Composer, Pianist, Conductor, elements of this concerto can be traced back as far as 1913-14; he worked on sketches of it off and on thereafter. It is dedicated to the composer Nicholai Medtner. Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda, in Rachmanino[v], report that, in a letter to the dedicatee, Rachmaninov asked why Medtner had not pointed out that "the theme of the second movement is the theme of the first movement in Schumann's concerto." With Rachmaninov at the keyboard, the new concerto was premiered March 18, 1927, in Philadelphia, with Leopold Stokowski conducting. Sources report unanimous withering scorn from all the critics, "condemning the work as a relic of the nineteenth century." One insensitive scribe wrote, "Cécile Chaminade could have composed it after drinking three glasses of claret." Even after the public's firm rejection of 20th-century criticism's snobbish appraisal of the composer's plush Romanticism, the Fourth Concerto has remained an ugly duckling. It was revised in 1941 but did not get a warmer critical reception.
I had to refresh my mind's ear by listening to four recordings of the Fourth Concerto, having not heard it performed live in the last three decades or, frankly, ever listening to it closely. Unlike the ever popular Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Fourth has no immediately attractive melodic themes that sweep up the listener. Sitkovetsky and his superb soloist, Konstantin Lifschitz, made the strongest possible case for this neglected piece. Playing from memory, Lifschitz seemed to have no technical limitations. Like older giants of the keyboard such as Claude Frank, he summoned huge waves of sound without flamboyant gestures. He deployed a wide palette of tone color and dynamics. Balance with the orchestra was excellent, and the orchestra was able to turn on a dime to fit every swerve of the solo part. It was a fascinating experience to follow all the discursive short themes of this concerto, but it will probably remain a backwater in the repertory.
In response the audience's warm reception, Lifschitz gave a eloquent and poised reading of the Prelude in F sharp Major from Book II of Bach's Well-Tempered Klavier. The pianist first became well known when, at 17, he recorded Bach's Goldberg Variations for the Denon label. This was around the time Sitkovetsky was making his second string transcription of the same work.
Certain works are heard one or more times every season by those who attend a lot of concerts. I joked with a colleague that someone in the Triangle owns the scores of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony and passes them around as needed. The same has seemed true for Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, in A Minor, played on this occasion. Beethoven's works are the focal theme of the GSO's Masterworks season. It would take something out of the ordinary to prompt a jaded critic to enthuse about yet another rendition of the Seventh Symphony, but with alert attacks, tight ensemble, and vital attention to rhythm, Sitkovetsky and his deeply committed musicians did just that. The overall orchestral sound was crisp and clear. The conductor's tightly controlled elaboration of the second movement's seven variations was particularly successful. The fast third movement was infectious, and – best of all – the last movement was kept from seeming an anticlimax. As interpreted by Sitkovetsky, it was a critical end to the symphony, not just a warmed-over treatment of the earlier movements. All sections of the orchestra played with intensity that was worthy of chamber music.