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The competitive dimension, wherein two soloists in tandem compete for attention as a measure of just how great each of them is, is missing here. For some listeners, especially Rachmaninoff devotees, that might be viewed as eviscerating a performance of its tension and energy. But that is a view that attributes to the performers a kind of magical aura that is not necessarily identical to the substantive content of the music itself. In fact, when music is as cogently and lovingly surveyed as it is here, the net result is just the opposite.

Witness, for example, Mr Isserlis's revealing exploitation of pitch relations and pedal points in the soaring melisma of the Rachmaninoff sonata's poignant Andante. Only a musician who is intimately familiar with the aesthetics of an earlier historic period, particularly the Affektenlehre of the baroque era, could survey Rachmaninoff's polyphonically dense landscape so transparently and with such an unerring grasp of its compositional teleology. Mr Hough's savvy manipulation of the work's even thicker piano textures convert the generalized sonic sheen that most pianists see fit to make of it into a silken, even febrile web of contrapuntal filaments. That may not be, where pianistic tradition is concerned, the customary and usual approach to Rachmaninoff, where white-hot passion and bravado can combine to overwhelm the senses. On the contrary, it betrays a cooler disposition, where intimacy, codified in the smallest motivic figurations and the manner in which these are articulated, is valued in favor of overtly rhetorical declamation.

In other words, what interests both Mr Hough and Mr Isserlis are not explosive climaxes, where phrases erupt and spew forth Vesuvius-like, but something more quiescent, thoughtful and indeed, implosive. Climaxes are never imposed exogenously, but develop organically from inside the text as the consequence of rhythmic energy, cumulatively distributed, that has been allowed to fulfill its own destiny. Such precocious aforethought is likely anathema to those who covet the crash and burn, if admittedly cathartic pyrotechnics of larger-than-life Rachmaninoff interpreters like Horowitz and his imitative mignons. Which is to say that, for ears unaccustomed to, or worse, intimidated by a performance that respects without compromise the integrity of the work itself, Mr Hough and Mr Isserlis are bound to disappoint [listen -- track 6, 8:15-9:17]. There's irony in that, as the very name Rachmaninoff bears something in common with the beneficent, ethereal posture these musicians invest in it, and is in turn legitimized by its etymological esotericism: the composer's name, traced to the cultural spoils of the campaigns of Alexander the Great in India, comes from the Russian for Brahman.

Indeed, here and again in the overtly rhetorical Franck Sonata (which no musician is beyond referring to, in the classical music locker room, as the Frank Sinatra), Mr Isserlis and Mr Hough prove persuasive protagonists for the musical aesthetics of Georg Gervinus (1805-1871). Gervinus's principal obiter dictum -- accentus mater musices (accent is the mother of music) -- seems particularly apropos, in that both artists demonstrate a genuine understanding of musical grammar and its organizing principals. Theirs is music making which speaks as much as it sings; it gives weight to the notion of the Empfindungsaccent, wherein affective accentuation and shading displace rhetorical gesture as the principal means of conveying the reservoir of expressive nuances associated with speech. Like a skilled actor who communicates textual intent through vocal inflection, body language and facial expressions as much as he does through his words, what matters is not what is said, but what is meant.

Of course, in the world of music, such things are abstractions that could mean just about anything. As musical semioticians would be first to point out, music is nothing if not a field rich in signifiers. Just a wink of an eye or a downward turn of the corner of the mouth can suggest just the opposite of what a speaker is actually saying. In music, these visual clues find their contextual counterpart in affective inflection. For example, where compositional conflict is codified harmonically through dissonance, or rhythmically by means of accentuation (and the subsequent evacuation from the tension these elements create), even the slightest stress of a motivic particle can affect the symbolic climate. Musical prosody depends just as much as poetry does on the contextual elaboration and organization of meter; any mutation of a syllable or, in the case of its musical equivalent, a motivic fragment can and will alter the sense of the phrase and its meaning -- linguistic or compositional, literal or symbolic -- and how these are perceived by the listener, too. While this is an area best left to the critical scrutiny of reception theory, it is also one that the savviest musical minds, such as Mr Isserlis and Hough, are compelled to contemplate; it's absolutely de rigeur.

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Copyright © 30 November 2003 John Bell Young, Tampa, Florida, USA


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