February 23, 2019
Wheaties boxes are plastered with the images of runners, swimmers, gymnasts, football players and other exemplars of stamina.
Ha. Mere sports stars have nothing on the handful of musical muscle masters with the guts and grit, power and KAPOW! to play the solo role in Tchaikovsky’s seldom-heard and absurdly difficult Piano Concerto No. 2 in G.
That was the ear-boggling opening act on the San Antonio Symphony’s Feb. 22 program in the Tobin Center. Victor Valkov was the indomitable pianist, and music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducted the concert, which closed with Robert Schumann’s über-gemütlich Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish,” in a performance of surpassing beauty and fluidity.
There are reasons – not good ones – why Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto has languished in the shadow of the ubiquitous and unavoidable First. The First has tunes that are easier to remember, but not better or more interesting. Nineteenth-century audiences didn’t know what to make of the Second’s unusual but supremely lovely andante, in which solo violin and cello have more prominent roles than the piano. The opening allegro rather sprawls, running about 22 minutes and featuring two long solo cadenzas, and that movement gives the soloist such a workout that the only reasonable sequel is a week at a Barbados beach resort with an unlimited supply of piña coladas – Tchaikovsky was right to let the soloist relax in the second movement.
Mr. Valkov’s association with San Antonio goes back to November of 2013, when he and his musical partner, cellist Lachezar Kostov – both Bulgarians who were then graduate students at Rice – agreed on short notice to play for a Camerata San Antonio concert. Mr. Kostov soon afterwards joined the symphony’s cello section (he has since moved to the Baltimore Symphony), and both quickly established themselves as major assets in local chamber music.
A few brief rough patches crept into Mr. Valkov’s performance of the concerto – just enough to establish the fact that he is, in fact, human, but not enough to detract from his brilliance and ferocity in the opening and closing allegros. When the score allowed it, in the middle movement and in some solo passages in the first, Mr. Valkov stopped to smell the roses with supple phrasing and authentic feeling. He summoned a huge sound from the Steinway but never seemed to overstress its capabilities. Concertmaster Eric Gratz and principal cello Ken Freudigman brought gorgeous sound and radiant warmth to the andante’s meaty double solo.
Mr. Lang-Lessing knows his way around the Schumann symphonies. He had already recorded all four of them with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra three years before conducting the “Rhenish” on his 2009 San Antonio Symphony debut, when he became the instant front-runner to succeed Larry Rachleff as music director.
This performance matched the earlier one in its generally brisk tempi and rosy-cheeked robustness, but was miles ahead in its seamless sense of line, its intelligently wrought details, and the orchestra’s sheer beauty of sound and nimbleness of execution. Once again the horns made glorious contributions to the first movement. Indeed, the whole brass brigade had a splendid evening.
Jeannette SorrellPhoto: Roger Mastroianni
Out of the shadows, a tour de force
SA Symphony, SLL, Viktor Valkov