Excerpt from The Chautauqua Daily by Guest Critic Christopher H. Gibbs
Three long threads were woven into the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra concert Tuesday evening. The first is called “Into the Music/After the Music,” intermission-less programs after which the audience is invited to ask questions of Music Director Rossen Milanov. The second: several concerts this summer featuring Russian music, in this instance Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Finally, there is the ongoing collaboration of the CSO with the remarkable pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, who is appearing for his 14th consecutive summer at Chautauqua.
Milanov’s care was immediately evident with the opening work, the far more commonly heard Prelude and Liebestod from Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which he led in an uncommonly subtle performance. This is a piece that changed music history (two weeks from now we will get to hear another game changer when the Music School Festival Orchestra joins the CSO for Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”).
The opera’s plot revolves around the doomed love of the title characters, as Isolde is betrothed to Tristan’s much older uncle, King Marke. One of Wagner’s brilliant achievements in this opera was finding a musical analogue to the lover’s unfulfilled erotic passion. The first chord in the Prelude — the “Tristan Chord,” perhaps the most discussed and famous in all of Western music — is unresolved according to the traditional rules of tonal harmony (the Rolling Stones would say it gets “no satisfaction”). Wagner immediately repeats it, again without resolving the dissonance. And then does so again and again — for nearly five hours. The effect is astonishing. The chord is finally resolved only at the very end, when Tristan and Isolde are both dead.
What we heard Tuesday gave us the beginning and end of the opera, skipping the many hours in between. Milanov chose a relatively fast tempo for the opening, one that I think serves the music well, unlike some conductors who drag things out, supposedly for greater profundity. The pacing over the course of work was totally convincing and built to effective, blossoming climaxes that wonderfully captured the sweep of this intoxicating score.
Gavrylyuk’s special bond with Chautauqua has led to his return each summer for performances with the CSO, recitals and chamber music, master classes and a more recent position as artist-in-residence and artistic adviser to the School of Music’s Piano Program. There is clearly a commitment on both sides that continues even as his international recognition and career justifiably skyrocket.
I will gladly hear Gavrylyuk play anything, but he is a Rachmaninoff specialist, so it is a particular pleasure that Chautauquans in short succession got to hear him perform two of the composer’s five works for piano and orchestra. While he has recorded all of Sergei Prokofiev’s piano concertos, and some of Rachmaninoff’s solo keyboard music, Gavrylyuk has not yet recorded the concertos (his widely praised performance of the Third Concerto at the BBC Proms concerts in 2017 can be viewed on YouTube, and is simply extraordinary).
Gavrylyuk brought to his performance his usual thrilling technical wizardry, but also the large-scale drama that makes his Rachmaninoff so special. Milanov and the CSO were perfect partners in this drama and adeptly handled the tricky metrical challenges of the final movement. Audiences can look forward to this fabulous pianist’s recital in the Amphitheater next week.