ISO programs Rachmaninoff/Shostakovich 

Guest pianist Philippe Bianconi plays Rach 2

click to enlarge Pianist Philippe Bianconi
  • Pianist Philippe Bianconi

For the 11th of this season's ISO classical programs, Friday evening's Circle Theatre saw yet another full house, something becoming rather commonplace since last September. ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański led the orchestra in two large works: Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 -- Rach 2 -- with French pianist Philippe Bianconi, 55, at the keyboard and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10, Op. 93 (1953).

Rach 2 has been among the most popular of concertos in the Romantic repertoire since its Moscow world premiere in 1901. Filled with engaging melody, the work is only outclassed in its architecture and piano virtuosity by the composer's next concerto effort--Rach 3--written eight years later and by now equal in popularity to Rach 2.

The selection of tempos in any work is a challenge. There is no one "right" set of them in any work's performance, the departure from which diminishing it. Rather there's an acceptable range of interpretive pacing which works well when coupled with the right phrasing, touch, dynamic and tempo nuances. Even given that qualification, Bianconi took parts of the concerto too slowly, most especially the opening chord progression leading to the opening theme, and all of the second (slow) movement. The latter movement amounted to a dissection rather than an interpretation.

Happily, the third movement, with its "Full Moon and Empty Arms" theme fell within the acceptable tempo range. Moreover Bianconi showed a dazzling touch through all the movement's perorations, with nigh perfect control over his passage, scale, chord and trill work, all of which brought forth a standing ovation--and an encore. Announced from the stage, Bianconi played Chopin's Mazurka in A minor, one of five mazurkas he wrote in that form and key signature.

Shostakovich 10 is and hour long, largely brooding work that nonetheless typifies the "victory through struggle" or "strife to triumph" theme adopted by so many symphonists taking their departure from Beethoven's Fifth of a century and a half earlier. Shostakovich's more famous Fifth Symphony (1937) had adopted the same theme, with "less brooding" and more thematic beauty.

Urbański showed a strong command of the symphony from its soft, lower string line beginning the work to its triumphal close. Many sections contained much solo playing from French horn to oboe to bassoon to clarinet, all of their players squarely hitting the mark. But that combination most characteristic of Shostakovich is the flute-piccolo duo, nicely played by ISO principal Karen Moratz and Rebecca Price Arrensen respectively.

Urbański and Bianconi will repeat this program Sunday, March 6 at the Carmel Center for the performing arts/Palladium. March 4

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