Saturday, March 5, 2016

ISO's Russian program reaches the heights with Bianconi and Urbanski

So much attention is  paid to Dmitri Shostakovich as a Soviet composer that it's all too easy to underestimate his identity as a Russian composer. It's not irrelevant in listening to or discussing his music to consider his integrity resisting the system that made life difficult for him and his countrymen over several decades. But his roots are in Russian soil. There's no such thing as Soviet soil.

Placing a major Shostakovich work (Symphony No. 10 in E minor) against one by an older contemporary who chose exile instead of
Philippe Bianconi was supreme in Rachmaninoff.
uneasy accommodation to the regime illuminates the Russian character of both him and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Melodies often speak volumes within a narrow range; release is often as important as attack from phrase to phrase. There is an Oriental cast to many of them, as was suggested by revelatory oboe, flute and bassoon solos in the first part of the Shostakovich finale.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra this weekend is making the Rachmaninoff-Shostakovich juxtaposition work well in three concerts conducted by Krzysztof Urbanski, its music director, with Philippe Bianconi as guest soloist.

In Friday's concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre, Bianconi gave a stunning account of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. He linked both the livelier and more melancholy themes to the composer's temperamental dourness. When a Rachmaninoff melody soars, it still seems to be looking back at something that had to be left behind. As Bianconi played it, the great arc of piano melody in the second movement, for instance, grew naturally out of the faint pulse and drifting quality of its initial statement.

The gathering of an animated spirit in the middle evolved naturally into a cadenza that's far from a display vehicle, as the soloist was well aware. Bianconi always insisted that the piano as a concerto voice retain some diffidence amid all the virtuoso elan that Rachmaninoff could command as well as anyone. The call to order of crescendoing piano chords at the very start never stinted on majesty, but it also avoided hinting at any vainglory to come.

The orchestra was thoroughly congruent with the expressive breadth of Bianconi's playing. Urbanski shaped the "paragraphs" neatly in the opening movement. In the second, the re-entry of the violins after the cadenza supported the guest artist's subtlety. The first statement of the contrasting theme in the finale — long ago repurposed as a popular song called "Full Moon and Empty Arms" — not only had poise as stated by the violas and solo oboe, but also featured lovely support in hushed phrasing from the horn section.

For an encore, Bianconi confirmed his aptitude as an old-school romantic with Chopin's A minor Mazurka. Phrasing was supple, including nicely judged rubato playing. An apt player of this repertoire is often praised for having a singing tone; Bianconi not only had that, but exhibited the equivalent of a skillful singer's vocal coloring as well.

Not having a phonographic memory, I can't claim to know that Urbanski's account of the Shostakovich Tenth Friday was better than what they achieved in this work four years ago, when they were new to each other. But I'm almost certain that's the case. The confidence he seems to have instilled in his principals, and often section by section, was evident repeatedly Friday night. Every passage had integrity and the breath of life to it, and was well linked to its surroundings.

There was the poignant theme for solo clarinet near the beginning, later stated by the bassoons just as soulfully. There was sturdy balance in the strings throughout, but especially during the five minutes of eloquent dreariness with which the finale begins. And when that lengthy episode is past, there ensues some of the best-orchestrated fast music Shostakovich ever wrote for symphony orchestra.

The full palette is exploited, its colors applied at breakneck speed, and — in this performance — solidly put into place. Those listeners who become impatient with Shostakovich in his circusy moods (even when they seem ironic) will find nothing to object to here. The ISO capped its performance of this masterpiece with brilliant confirmation of how firmly the rapport with its seventh music director has been established.