An impressive final season performance from the North State Symphony
If I had to choose the outstanding work from the past weekend’s already fine set of North State Symphony performances, it would have to be Russian-born pianist Natalia Bolshakova’s compelling rendition of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra from Redding on Saturday.
The youthful Bolshakova established an intimate relationship between herself and her instrument, often leaning closely over the keys with an intense concentration that seemed to add to the powerfully focused quality of her playing. And, of course, the piece itself is a pretty terrific work—a series of 24 variations on an often-quoted Paganini riff, wonderfully modulated through a succession of moods, suggesting, according to the composer, the fabled romantic violinist’s brilliant playing, his pact with the Devil to improve that playing, the entrance of the young woman he hopes his pact will help him win, and his finally being drubbed down into hell by a series of variants on the medieval chant, “Dies Irae” ("Day of Wrath").
One of the Rachmaninoff’s famous “tricks” here is to take the first five notes of the minor Paganini theme (which, in scale numbers, could be described as 1-3-2-1-5), shift it to major, and turn it upside-down (5-3-4-5-1) to supply the beautiful love theme that enters half-way through the piece. Indeed, Bolshakova, who played with passion and (even) orchestra-awing speed, used this love theme as an encore at the Redding performance—where it added a sense of wistful memory to the whole.
To focus on Rachmaninoff, however, is not to neglect the concert’s opening Alborada del Gracioso (Maurice Ravel), a subtly rhythmed and engagingly textured Commedia Dell’Arte-like snapshot of a morning in Spain, or the symphony’s grand, second-half rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.
So much more than the familiar four notes (misnamed the “Fate Theme") with which it begins, the Fifth Symphony's special glory can be found in the lovely bass-and-cello lines of the Second Movement, the quasi-fugue of the Fourth Movement, and the delicious moment in the Third Movement, when the spooky tip-toeing about of the winds and lower strings, accompanied by a hauntingly shimmering violin vibrato, suddenly give birth to the Finale’s triumphantly elevating theme. Wow!