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Updated Friday, January 4, 2013 at 05:01 PM

A knockout Night One of Rachmaninov fest

By Melinda Bargreen
Special to The Seattle Times

Concert review

That roar emanating from Benaroya Hall on Thursday evening was not from the Seahawks’ “12th Man,” though it was nearly as loud. It was the roar of a capacity audience thrilled by a knockout performance of one of the most popular of all concertos, Rachmaninov’s arch-romantic Piano Concerto No. 2.

The soloist in that work was the 20-year-old British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, a rising star with brilliantly dexterous digits and an interpretive finesse to go with them. Very carefully partnered by Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot, who frequently looked over his shoulder to make eye contact with the young pianist, Grosvenor gave a performance of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 that was equal parts clarity, lyricism, and flat-out hair-raising panache. No wonder Grosvenor has been winning awards and recording contracts, and reviews that extol his “echoes of a golden age” and call him “the darling of every pianophile in Britain and beyond.”

The Rachmaninov Second can sound muddy and cluttered when the pianist and the orchestra battle for supremacy in this dense, passionate score. Morlot and the orchestra concentrated instead on transparency as well as power, letting Grosvenor’s solo part shine through, and making his dialogues with various orchestral soloists much more effective.

The fervent audience ovation that followed the performance was rewarded by Grosvenor’s spectacular encore: Johann Strauss’ “Tritsch-Tratsch Polka,” arranged by Georges Cziffra.

What a brilliant programming coup, starting up the orchestra in the post-holiday doldrums with an ultra-popular piano extravaganza featuring four Rachmaninov concertos in two programs. Seattle has always been a city of keyboard fanciers, and choosing four highly rated but little-known pianists to unveil in the “Rach Fest” has lured capacity audiences downtown to check things out.

The first program featured not only Grosvenor, with his crystalline technique and singing touch, but also the remarkable Korean-born pianist Yeol eum Son — silver medalist at both the 2009 Van Cliburn International Competition and the 2011 Tchaikovsky International Competition.

Son’s poise and lyricism were evident in her reading of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 1, a work that is musically less substantial and certainly less famous than the Second. She nonetheless made a powerful impression, displaying both an impressive, sparkling technique and a restrained, silky touch in the more lyrical passages. Son literally let her hair down, shaking out a chignon, in the second-movement Andante, playing as if it were an eloquent private reverie. Her performance was warmly received.

Morlot and the orchestra provided sensitive and musically intelligent partnership to both pianists. On the down side: the piano slid slowly out of tune, most noticeably the Ds and D-flats of the three octaves above middle C. It should have been readjusted at intermission.

Two more Rachmaninov concertos await Saturday’s listeners: the mighty Third, with Chinese-born up-and-comer Di Wu soloing (in a work so long and convoluted that a long-ago Seattle Symphony soloist actually got lost in the last movement, and the conductor had to restart). And the Fourth will feature the 23-year-old Russian-born multiple prizewinner Denis Kozhukhin. The Fourth will be played first, perhaps because anything following the Third is inevitably anticlimactic. Here’s betting the performances won’t be, if they are anything to compare with Thursday night’s concert.

Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at mbargreen@aol.com.

ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES

Seattle Symphony Orchestra: Rach Fest

8 p.m. Saturday, with guest pianists Denis Kozhukhin and Di Wu, and conductor Ludovic Morlot, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $19-$122 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org).



British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, 20.




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