The orchestra, Rachmaninoff: Perfect together

Philadelphia Orchestra
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Philadelphia Orchestra performances of Sergei Rachmaninoff promise to be special occasions more than in most places: Though the orchestra was the composer's muse only later in life, Rachmaninoff's sensibility was so consistent that early works align as well with the Philadelphia sound as ones he wrote specifically for the orchestra.

That was especially the case Friday when guest conductor Robert Spano delivered a knockout performance of Symphony No. 1, almost paradoxically thanks to his refusal to indulge in gratuitous sonic glamour.

That meant the music's allusions to then-fashionable Orientalism (represented in Borodin's trashier moments) were downplayed almost to nothing. In place of that orchestral window-dressing came a symphony that predicted the pervasive anxiety of 20th-century music that was to come - no wonder this piece failed at its 1897 premiere - and is easily as accomplished as the composer's later, more frequently heard symphonies.

Not heard here since 1991, when Charles Dutoit completed his oddly chilly, ill-received cycle of Rachmaninoff symphonies for the London/Decca label, the Symphony No. 1 is the first panel in an orchestral triptych that's unique in classical music history. In many ways, the composer wrote the same symphony (similar use of form, melody, gesture and harmony) but at very different points in his life, allowing you to chart his evolution not just as a composer (with the varying influences he absorbed along the way) but also as a human being, given his post-Tchaikovskian confessional quality.

The symphony has much of what you can't reasonably expect from a 23-year-old composer (Rachmaninoff's age at the premiere), namely a profound and purposeful balance of fantasy and unity in what is a masterpiece of thematic integration - though with youthful but genteel acts of defiance, such as dropping a fugue into the piece's opening minutes.

The stateliness that Eugene Ormandy brought to Rachmaninoff, with straight tempos that framed the music's more rhapsodic moments, wasn't Spano's way. He molded phrases with just enough elasticity to make passages that are normally just engaging seem spellbinding.

Precision isn't necessarily a positive priority in Rachmaninoff performance, but it was with Spano, who proved the composer had nothing to hide and much detail to reveal behind those washes of orchestral sound. The scherzolike second movement sounded almost Mendelssohnian in its nimble placement of orchestration details. Throughout the performance, even the most subsidiary element had something vital to say.

Just as some conductors pair imposing Mahler symphonies with charming but substantial Mozart, Spano constructed an odd but ingeniously viable bedfellow to Rachmaninoff, starting with Stravinsky Lite - his neo-baroque Dumbarton Oaks showed a Russian composer even more cosmopolitan than Rachmaninoff - that segued into Mozart. The catalyst was piano soloist Peter Serkin, featured in Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra and Mozart's Rondo in D (K. 382), both dispatched in his beguilingly cool, Olympian fashion.

Reading the Stravinsky from a full score, Serkin achieved a chamber-music unity to a performance that felt almost like Prokofiev in its playful humor. The Capriccio is not one of Stravinsky's more emotionally explicit works, but Serkin found hints of Gershwin and whiffs of tango. The piece requires the work of a big concerto - it's a high-velocity piece - but is never going to give its soloist the big-bang response of Brahms. But that's Serkin for you. He pursues a singular, high-minded path and invites you to come along, but won't be deterred if you don't.