Principal guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard will be at the podium, with guest vocal ensemble Cappella Romana and pianist Alexander Melnikov — who will play Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with a little something different in the first movement.
There is nothing “usual” about the programming for this week’s all-Rachmaninov concerts by Seattle Symphony. Not only will principal guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard explore the musical soil from which Rachmaninov’s musical imagination sprang in a most unconventional manner — the vocal group Cappella Romana will introduce both Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 2 with Russian orthodox hymns — but he will also welcome pianist Alexander Melnikov to perform the original version of the concerto’s first movement coda.
“This particular concerto, Sasha played for (pianist Sviatoslov) Richter, his mentor,” Elena Dubinets, vice president of artistic planning, said. “At some point, Richter mentioned to him that he had played the revised, 1917 version of the concerto all his life, but preferred the coda from the original 1882 version. Richter found it a pity that Rachmaninov had eliminated it, because he thought it superior to the replacement. Sasha will play the original coda for the very first time in his career as a tribute to both Rachmaninov and Richter.”
As for Melnikov’s fourth return to Seattle in three years, Dubinets said: “He’s an incredible musician. His inventive musical mind always finds something new in the music we all know from our childhood.”
With Thomas Dausgaard, conductor, and pianist Alexander Melnikov, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, noon Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday (March 30-April 1), Benaroya Hall, Seattle; tickets from $22 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
Given Melnikov’s unstoppable quest for understanding, every conversation, even a late-hour phone exchange that took place when he was exhausted after performing, becomes a journey filled with unexpected hairpin turns. As long as you’re willing to go along for the ride, revelations and delight, both mental and musical, abound.
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“I would start with a very boring statement,” he said, as if to sound the alert that what was to follow would be anything but. “I think that what is overlooked is simply the quality of Rachmaninov’s music. It is too easy to adopt some kind of arrogance toward him because of his catchy tunes aspect. His curse was that he could write beautiful melodies which then became very famous tunes that made into the movies and now ringtones and whatnot.
“But that’s not his fault. People simply do not bother to see what lay behind those catchy tunes and how well his music was made.”
Marveling that the Piano Concerto No. 1 was a “graduation piece” from a 19-year old man, Melnikov finds the quality of its thematic material, and the fact that Rachmaninov had already developed an unmistakably distinct musical language, extraordinary.
“That he later revised the piece with extremely refined textures shows us that this work was dear enough to him that he thought it worth revisiting and redoing,” he says. “It is extremely romantic and youthful, yet filled with nostalgic gestures. This nostalgia was present long before Rachmaninov had to emigrate, and is inherent in his music.”
Melnikov feels the First Piano Concerto belongs to a Russia that, due to a host of cataclysmic events and disasters, is lost forever.
“For me, there is not much contradiction between Rachmaninov’s music and his personality. I think they went very harmoniously together. There were maybe some other Russian personalities like that, such as Anton Chekhov, but I could count them on one hand. This kind of extreme noblesse and self-denial, but with a lot of dignity, honesty, and empathy at the same time, is a version of Russia as I always dream could have been and should have been and would have been. Rachmaninov’s music is a medium for how to connect with this utopic country which is not there anymore, but which I want to be there, if you see what I mean.”
Will Melnikov deliver a distinctly Russian, “Remembrance of Things Past” performance that evokes memories of things that may not have passed, except in fantasy? What he makes of that anything but boring enigma we shall find out.