Van Zweden’s Rachmaninoff Presents Sweeping Melodies and Brilliant Colors Without Apology

Today’s concert at 2:30 pm at Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center is sold out; returned tickets may be available before the concert. 214-692-0203;

It takes a certain amount of faith in both the composer and the audience for a conductor to present a concert devoted entirely to one composer. And, though “Romance and Rachmaninoff” made a self-evident advertising campaign for Valentine’s weekend, Dallas Symphony music director Jaap van Zweden took a bit of an artistic gamble when he paired Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the same composer’s Symphony No. 2.

The ploy paid off well at the box office—I overheard one concert goer Saturday night at Meyerson Symphony Center, surveying the packed house, comment aptly that Beethoven and Rachmaninoff are the two composers who can always fill the hall. But, though it’s easy to bring a crowd in when the Rachmaninoff’s name on the metaphorical marquee, keeping them awake and interested once they’re in their seats can be a little more challenging; the characteristic lush harmonies and gorgeous melodies that have made Rachmaninoff so popular with music lovers can also work against the need for variety within a concert.

Van Zweden thus steered clear of the most familiar of Rachmaninoff’s works—the Second and Third Piano Concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody—and turned to worthy pieces that, while clearly appealing, haven’t been overworked in the repertoire.

The Piano Concerto No. 1, here presented with Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski, as soloist, is a glittering essay in lyricism and piano sonorities, and can be reduced, by less sensitive performers, into a glossy show piece. But Trpceski, who exudes an appealing combination of flair and solid competency onstage, and who tosses off excruciatingly difficult technical passages with seeming effortlessness, searched out the warmth and sincere expressiveness of the more subtle passages. He made the outer movements shine, but he was at his most impressive in the quieter middle Andante, bringing an arresting serenity to the long unaccompanied passage at the beginning of that movement. Whatever else he may be in terms of a broader repertoire, Trpceski is clearly a major interpreter of Rachmaninoff.

After intermission, van Zweden took on the gigantic challenges of the Second Symphony. For decades, many conductors opted for a set of composer-sanctioned cuts in this hour-long tapestry; van Zweden chose, as is now the custom with major orchestras, to present an uncut reading. The complete version is clearly preferable: though Rachmaninoff may have allowed the omission of a few passages, he clearly announces in musical terms, in the titanic utterances of the opening passages, a symphonic epic.

Van Zweden presented the sweeping melodies, the grand harmonic gestures, and the brilliant colors without apology—and, at the same time, constantly attended to the meticulous counterpoint that supports those more obvious elements. While detractors of Rachmaninoff’s music used to dismiss it as a collection of soupy melodies and dripping harmonies, a broader consensus in our time has come to recognize and admire the universality of the passions and energies he captured in his music. In a reading such as van Zweden’s, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony becomes the musical equivalent of Gogol or Tolstoy, in which small details build into a towering and profound expression of passion, joy, and sorrow.