BOCA RATON — The Third Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninov has been celebrated — and feared by pianists — for its immense difficulties and its taxing length, even while listeners have kept it a beloved part of the canon for almost 100 years.
The Armenian pianist Sergei Babayan showed he was up to the challenge of the Rachmaninov on Saturday night with a fine performance of the work as the Lynn Philharmonia got its 16th season under way at the St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton.
Appearing with the mostly conservatory student orchestra on the second half of a program led by conservatory dean Jon Robertson, Babayan demonstrated an ability to play the many thousands of notes Rachmaninov wrote and put them into a satisfying emotional context. Babayan gave the piece all the extravagance the score calls for, as well as the tenderness: he was heroic in most of the first movement and tender as he launched the main theme of the second.
The only thing that was missing for me was a certain amount of thematic clarity, especially in the first movement cadenza. One of the problems here is that the climax of this section is on a rather banal motif, and it’s supported by huge chords that climb up from the depths. Babayan pedaled through the supporting chords, which helps obscure the weakness of the writing somewhat, but it also sounds like the composer is trying to hide something.
Preferences vary on things like this, but I would rather hear all these sorts of passages played as clean as a whistle; it provides a much-needed astringency to an all-stops-out piece and helps balance it. That said, Babayan certainly gave an exciting rendition of this work, one that had the audience jumping to its feet with the last martial tattoo. The Lynn orchestra accompanied quite well, marred only by some out-of-tune winds in the opening bars that threw some odd harmonic lights onto the austerity of the chant-like opening melody.
Robertson showed admirable control of his orchestra in the Rachmaninov and throughout the concert. He has a very clear idea what he wants, and his charges give it to him.
This was crucial for the first half of the concert, which was composed of a sort of dog’s breakfast of three different pieces: an opera overture, a musical-tourism showpiece, and the emotional-heart movement of a gigantic post-Romantic symphony. But Robertson’s conceptions were precise enough that the audience was able to enter each very different sound world with ease.
The concert opened with Giuseppe Verdi’s overture to his opera La Forza del Destino, which began with those opening six unison hammerblows in the brass thankfully in tune, and played with crispness and power. The opening theme murmured along with the right amount of mystery, though the second theme was much too slow for my taste, if still effective and well-played. Here again, Robertson and the Philharmonia showed themselves well able to handle the different moods and tempi of this stop-and-start overture and make it work; I also appreciated that he was happy to let all of Verdi’s colors — which were critical to the composer’s conception of how opera was to be written — display themselves in their full splendor, as in the big brass section statement toward the end.
The first half closed with the Capriccio Espagnol of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose death 100 years ago is being observed this year in the classical world with increased performances of his music. This is tough music to bring across, too, because of its five-section structure. There was some nice solo violin and horn work in the Capriccio, and there was plenty of vigor in the Philharmonia’s reading.
But it seemed to lose momentum somewhere before the false ending that is followed by the big brass fanfare. There needs to be a sense of surprise and show-off throughout the work, and to me it sounded dutiful and pleasant rather than exotic and alluring.
The most involving performance came between the Verdi and the Rimsky-Korsakov: The celebrated Adagietto movement from the Fifth Symphony of Gustav Mahler. From the almost inaudibly whispered opening bars to the exhausted ending, the Philharmonia’s strings and harp played this famous music with the only kind of naked, rapt emotionalism that can make it so moving (even amid the grinding of the Roberts Hall air-conditioning units in the very quiet moments). Ensemble was admirable throughout, which was demonstrated in particular by the seamlessness of the transition from violins to celli in picking up the chief melody.
It was the kind of reading that made you think: Now what about the rest of that piece? Would it overtax this group too much, or would it be worth trying? That’s not a decision for me, but that the thought could occur says good things about this conservatory band.
(The Lynn Philharmonia will repeat the program at 4 p.m. Sunday in Roberts Hall, St. Andrew’s School, which is off Jog Road south of Yamato Road. Tickets are $30. Call 561-237-9000 or visit www.lynn.edu)