There are those music performances that you simply enjoy; and, there are those performances that are deeply satisfying, even thrilling, in their achievement. Then -- there are those rare, possibly once-in-a-lifetime performance experiences that seem miraculously transformative; ones that seem to irreversibly alter your thinking of music; ones in which the experience seems to transport you to some other unfamiliar plane of existence where nothing is ever the same afterwards. The "Rachmaninoff Remembered" concert by Russian pianist Evgheny Brakhman was one of those for this reviewer.
Brakhman's performance was, in a word, amazing and unforgettable. It was a performance that transcended technique, precision, even musicality. Brakhman's grasp of Rachmaninoff was so conversational and complete that I felt I was hearing a poet reading his own poetry. Clearly, the pianist had long ago accepted the gravity of the event and the gravity of his responsibility, and had become one with it. And, with this acceptance came a performance that emerged from his musical soul and flowed out over the audience almost magically.
Magic, or not, something rare and special existed in Cox Auditorium on Sunday evening, and obviously, many in the audience felt it. The clearest indicator of a transported audience was the fact that despite our flu and colds-ridden winter, there was almost no extraneous noise from the audience during Brakhman's playing, as if the human need for cold-weather coughing and throat-clearing was no longer necessary or important.
Perhaps some of the magic was due to the size of the audience that had been attracted to this occasion. A full quarter-hour before the concert began, every one of the approximately 1000 seats was filled and standees rimmed the sides and rear in marked anticipation. The energy created when so many interested people are jammed together is palpable, even if it is impossible to measure.
Perhaps the magic came from the historic nature of the occasion for many--a concert tribute to Knoxville's connection to Rachmaninoff and his music--although that connection was a sad twist of fate in a Knoxville of another era. Or, perhaps it was the thrill of discovery, not just of music, but of a brilliant performance from a brilliant performer.
Or, perhaps, it was all these things. Nevertheless, all that attended will remember this occasion and Brakhman's performance, feeling a bit unwilling or unable to let go of a performance experience that is so rarely felt.
Of all of the works on Brakhman's program, I was especially drawn to the Variations on a Theme of Corelli (op. 42)--if for no other reason, than it was the first time I had heard a live performance of it. While this was Rachmaninoff's last work written for solo piano (1931), it was not as popular with audiences during Rachmaninoff's lifetime, despite the fact that it suggests a composer who is exploring new tonalities and exciting new textures.
Brakhman opened the concert with six of the Etudes-Tableaux, four from the opus 33 and two from the opus 39. Amazingly, by the second and third ones, the C-sharp minor and C major, he had totally captivated the audience with the musicality, surprising piano aficionados and intriguing even those who may have considered an evening of solo piano a bit esoteric. The program also included wonderful performances of the Sonata No. 2, opus 36, and six of the Preludes. The audience was treated to three encores, one of which was a gorgeous and moving solo piano transcription of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise.
Time will tell how we remember last Sunday evening's tribute to the 70th anniversary of Rachmaninoff's last performance in Knoxville. Whether transported by history, nostalgia, music, or performance--all in the audience seemed to come away with an intangible something that carried us back out into the night feeling a bit changed for the better, a bit wiser musically, and feeling that we had been on hand for a momentous event.