France International Piano Festival of La Roque d’Anthéron – Rachmaninoff: Tatarstan
National Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Sladkovsky (conductor). Parc du Château de Florans, France. (GT)
Varvara Nepomnaschnaya (c) Jordi Roca
8 August, 20.00 – Lukas Geniušas (piano)
Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor Op. 18; Symphonic Poem – ‘Isle of the Dead’ Op.29
This orchestra made their debut here in Provence in July 2018 in a series of four well received concerts. As a result, they were immediately invited back for a residency of six concerts – a sign of this Kazan ensemble’s international class. Once again, Sladkovsky brought several outstanding young Russian soloists showcasing Russia’s continuing conveyor belt of musical talent. The residency opened with perhaps the most romantic and popular of Russian piano concertos. The soloist Lukas Geniušas is of Russian and Lithuanian blood and one can state that his background is firmly in the Russian school as he was educated at the Moscow Conservatoire studying with Vera Gornostaeva. He has a formidable degree of success in piano competitions, winning the Gina Bachauer Piano Competition in 2010, and sharing second prize with George Li at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. Lukas Geniušas’s repertoire ranges from the baroque to the modern and he has made several recordings by composers of diverse styles. The twenty-nine-year-old has worked with many different conductors and musicians including Valery Gergiev, Charles Dutoit, Mikhail Pletnev, and Leonard Slatkin. Lukas Geniušas has already appeared at this festival and among his future engagements are concerts at the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Salle Gaveau in the coming season.
The famously dark chords of Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto were deeply weighted setting the audience up for a memorable performance from the soloist. The clarity and articulation of the prolonged opening section was profoundly moving and Sladkovsky attentively supported the keyboard playing with subtly pronounced strings and softly characterized woodwind. The playing throughout the extended Moderato movement was magical, and towards the culmination, the proclamation of the secondary theme on the horn by Sergey Antonov was stunning while the soloist reprised the C minor key and allowed the orchestra to surge towards the closing C minor fortissimo. The Adagio was hauntingly opened by the strings led by Alina Yakonina, and after the brief entrance by Geniušas, the main theme was announced on Porfirieva’s flute and then by the clarinet of Muchamedzhin before the cadenza – the emotional centre of the whole work – was impressively performed by the soloist. Slowly, ever so slowly, the music ebbed away with the final dying chords on the piano in E major. The finale heaved forward in extraordinary fashion with the music shared between different instruments and the piano with this extraordinary pianist Geniušas driving everyone to the stormy climactic culmination.
Like the opening bars of the piano concerto, Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem ‘The Isle of the Dead’, evokes the strokes of oars of a boat sailing – not unlike the opening of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony – towards fate. The composer’s orchestral piece was based on a black and white reproduction of one of five paintings by Böcklin, and the chromatic shades must have coloured the composer’s vision for the work is mysterious and haunting as the theme circulates on the low strings, timpani and harp, and, almost from out of the blackness, the solo violin of Alina Yakonina offered a glimpse of light, then woodwind entered and the brass proclaimed the motif of the Dies irae from the Gregorian chant for the Mass of the Dead, and there emerged a passage of intense passion and dramatic playing, before the slow motion ritual of the stroking oars return for the work to close as it began on the low strings, the soft tread marvellously and effectively heard from Sladkovsky’s musicians. The conductor’s handling of this work confirms how highly regarded Sladkovsky is in Russia; in March 2019 he was awarded the International Rachmaninoff Prize for outstanding interpretation of the composer’s works in recent seasons. There was a nice effect by the musicians returning the applause by the audience.
8 August, 22.00 – Varvara Nepomnaschaya (piano)
Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor Op.37; Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini Op.43
The young pianist Varvara Nepomnaschaya is a new name for me: however, she has developed a successful career in Europe with a repertoire from early classical to contemporary composers and embracing a variety of styles. She was educated at the Gnessin Music School and later studied with Voskresensky at the Moscow Conservatoire. She has won several piano competitions including the Bach International Competition, and the Geza Anda Competition in 2012. Nepomnaschaya has collaborated with such distinguished conductors as Gergiev, and David Zinman.
The Russian’s opening bars of Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Concerto displayed some remarkable clarity with her crystal-clear notes, astonishingly fine technique, and in her brief solo passage showed stunning musicality – the theme from the composer’s unpublished etude-tableaux of 1914 was heard distinctly. The orchestra’s woodwind followed Varvara with artistry – especially the clarinet of Artur Muchamedzhin, and flute of Venera Porfireva. The late romantic character of the concerto was emphasized, and yet there was an amazing freshness in the playing leaving one with a feeling as if one was hearing this for the time. The affinity in the concerto between conductor, orchestra and soloist was remarkable. The Largo was sensitively played with a fine relationship between orchestra and soloist, although this was the first occasion they have played together. In the Allegro vivace, the reflective mood changed with a brisk tempo and again some wonderfully characterful playing from Nepomnaschaya. The Dies irae theme emerged in clear articulation from this immensely gifted young pianist. If she was unknown to many aficionados before this concert, she most certainly will become a major star in years to come.
A sign of her resilience was to follow this concerto by directly playing the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini and returning to the stage again with Sladkovsky. This proved the highlight of the evening, for the previous concerto lacks the rich romanticism of Rachmaninoff’s finest works while the Rhapsody uniquely shares the popularity of the Second Piano Concerto. From the opening bars of the theme L’istesso tempo, the soloist unravelled a series of beautifully ornamented chords on the Steinway, with superb support from Sladkovsky’s musicians. There were cautiously announced contributions from clarinet, flute, oboe which assisted the audience to hear all the gorgeous romanticism of the score. Rachmaninoff’s ‘calling card’ of the famous Dies irae appeared on the piano in the sixth variation immaculately intoned as the orchestra reprised unhurriedly the opening motif. Nepomnaschaya remarkably brought out the colours of the twenty-four variations, so much so that the popular Andante cantabile in D major arrived almost unexpectedly with the soloist enrapturing her audience with the fantasy and romance of her playing. This was a tremendous performance of a piece one is familiar with, but here sounded quite fresh in the hands of this outstandingly talented pianist.