A delicate balance (1/2)

Cairo Opera House Main Hall, 11 June; Sergey Rachmaninov: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30; L. van Beethoven: Symphony no. 3 in E flat Major “Eroica”, Op. 55. Cairo Symphony Orchestra, soloist: Mohamed Shams, conductor: Marcello Mottadelli

Published on 16 June 2011 in Al Ahram Weekly

PART 1: Sergey Rachmaninov: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in D minor

For the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, Saturday 11 June was a special day for a number of reasons. The programme featured two great works from the classical music repertoire: Rachmaninov’s piano concerto no. 3 and the famed Eroica, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3. This is not the first time that Mohamed Shams, the 27-year-old Egyptian pianist, chooses to play Rachmaninov’s Piano concerto no. 3 with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra; he already performed this extremely demanding work three years ago. Young as he is, Mohamed Shams is a very talented and very ambitious pianist, something he has demonstrated in numerous concerts in Egypt and abroad. His repertoire includes many challenging works for piano. The conductor, Marcello Mottadelli, added yet another flavout to the evening by announcing that, after three years of serving as Principal Conductor of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, this would be his final concert. I have avoided commenting on Mottadelli’s work for months, for reasons to be explained below. For now, let me stick with Rachmaninov.

Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 –1943), pianist and composer, earned an exceptional place in the history of classical music as one of the finest piano masters of his time, a contemporary of Shostakovich and Stravinsky who managed nonetheless to be perhaps the last representative of Russian Romanticism. Among his piano concertos, no 2 is the most popular. Written in 1901, it was an instant success, a miraculous bith following a long struggle with depression and creativity block. But it Rachmaninov’s piano concerto no 3 (often referred to as “Rach 3”) that is even more mature and far more elaborate at both the technical and emotional levels. Composed in 1909, the concerto premiered in the same year with Rachmaninov himself for soloist. Until the end of his life Rachmaninov went on performing the composition, making a profound mark on generations of pianists and audiences alike. Spending a significant portion of his life in the 20th century, Rachmaninov is among a handful of great composers and performers whose own recordings we can enjoy.

The enormous emotional charge Rachmaninov channelled into concerto no 3 covers numerous marvellous details, soothing and shocking by turns, but always providing a convincing solution to a musical problem. Rach 3 carries many beautifully poetic lines, but its lyricism is never too blunt. The high but well defined lines of romantic music are especially apparent in the first movement (Allegro ma non tanto); and they become abundant in the second movement (Intermezzo: adagio). Rachmaninov playing this concerto set an model for its interpretation that does not have to be followed by other pianists but reveals what probably remain the best technical approaches to the musical phrases it contains. Rachmaninov’s interpretation is also in a rather fast tempo by comparison to many other performers, whose speed ranges from the very fast and startling (Martha Argerich or Vladimir Horowitz, who nevertheless do not sacrifise the excellence of the interpretation) to the extremely leiseurely (Vladimir Ashkenazy) and the lyrically crawling (Evgeny Kissin). Performing Rachmaninov’s piano concerto no 3 with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, Mohamed Shams chose to follow the tempo of the master himself. This interpretation helps the pianist avoid over-romanticizing the concerto, even if he sometimes — a very few times, it must be said — tends to mash the notes. This is an extremely demanding composition to move through and requires accuracy with every note; all in all Shams’s performance is evidence of technical maturity. Shams has what it takes to meet the technical demands involved, but more importantly he is a passionate performer and this serves him beautifully in the multiple strong climaxes that occur in the first and the third (Finale: alla breve) movement.

Equally strong was the cadenza of the first movement: Ossia. Shams gave a powerfully expressive rendition of this extremely difficult piece of music. This cadenza is a soaring peak of the composition and can give the impression of a climax, which might be the reason Rachmaninov decided to compose another, more lyrical cadenza to replace it, which he and many other pianists perform. Shams’s passionate interpretation of the concerto naturally influenced choice of Ossia, which he performed with breathtaking skill, producing powerfully emotional and technically pure music. Shams managed to exercise enormous power in the final, third movement too, through which clearly defined accents rhythmically led the listener into each consecutive climax, going up the emotional scale and eventually reaching a pinnacle. The more lyrical parts of the second movement would have benefited from a refinement of edges and contrasts within the phrases, but Rachmaninov’s extreme sensitivity can elevate many lyrical lines without rendering them. It is in the second movement in particular that Rachmaninov provides multiple overlapping melodic lines and it is up to the pianist to frame the dominant one without sacrificing the others (played with the left hand). This is yet another challenge of the composition; Shams drew wonderful pictures with his performance, and greater distinction from the left hand would have raised it to even higher levels.

Another challenge of the concerto is the musical journey expressed through continuity from one passage to another. Being an extremely polarized composition in musical ideas, and breathtaking with their contrasting elements, the pianist needs to be constantly aware of the tempo versus the dynamics. Shams often reduced the tempo to stress the softer dynamics, especially as he ended lyrical phrases. This mode of expression is very powerful but it is an interpretation popular with young performers who are naturally influenced by the emotional weight emanating from Rachmaninov’s music. On some occasions, however, these procedures break the continuity. Concerto no 3 provides endless challenges and as has already been said, it is a musical fiend which, though deeply attractive, requires enormous control and awareness for its duration. Excellent on the technical level, Shams understands the concerto and controls it emotionally. Minor flaws could be mentioned, we could debate the interpretation ofspecific segments, but it will be interesting to listen to Shams perform this concerto again in a few years time — it will probably be among the most memorable ever.


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