The Vancouver Symphony

Conductor: Bramwell Tovey
Pianist: Marc-Andre Hamelin

Venue: The Orpheum
Date: Saturday, 12 October 2002, 20.00

Sibelius: Valse Triste
Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

Reviewer: J. H. Stape

From the prolonged sigh that is Sibelius's Valse Triste to the driving, forte rhythms closing Rachmaninoff's sprawling second symphony, this concert, sponsored by Great-West Life in the Great Composers series, was a lesson in fine making music. A characteristic example of Maestro Tovey's intelligent programming, the concert offered depth and variety, exploring a sonic world in which modern and Romantic traditions blended and collided.

Sibelius's exquisite miniature, tinged with the plangent melancholy of things past and never to return, was given a carefully crafted, even loving, reading of truly haunting character. The strings shimmered. Ghostly presences were gently evoked and as gently fled. All was a tissue of evanescence and fleeting feelings. A familiar enough piece, the waltz, was here conducted with a golden baton that peeled off thick layers of accumulated cliche to reveal new intensities, charms, and that most transitory of transitory things: graceful elegance.

With its rapid-fire changes in dynamics and tempo "The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43," (1934) came as vivid, painfully abrupt shifting of gears. The virtuoso demands of a piece that Rachmaninoff himself called "rather difficult" threatened to crowd out musicality, but the tight rein Maestro Tovey kept over his orchestral forces and the highly disciplined, steely precision of Marc-Andre Hamelin's pianism effected an impressive balance between large bravura gestures and intimately etched moments.

Indeed, the cooperation between conductor and pianist led to a chamber-music intensity in adagio sections of the twenty-four variations, with Hamelin's subdued silvery tones opening up to reveal depths in the lush music. Hamelin's intense and convincing playing was appreciatively received, and he generously offered as an encore a song arranged by himself.

The second part of the concert featured the vast canvas of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 of 1907-08. This full-bodied soundscape was explored with brio and sensitivity. Russian Romantic music par excellence, the work's brooding passion and flashes of electric energy seek at different moments to overwhelm the listener (and player).

Demanding carefully colouring and relentless architectural shaping, this is a piece to test an orchestra's mettle, and the VSO and Maestro Tovey came through triumphantly with a simply brilliant and thrilling reading of the score. The woodwind section, one of the orchestra's particular strengths, offered especially distinguished playing. The final movement, with its rise to grandeur after struggle, was a headlong rush to a frenzied, celebratory conclusion.

©2002, J. H. Stape