Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto requires virtuosity in spades, but it also requires something else. As the composer himself said of his opening theme, "I wanted to 'sing' the melody on the piano, as a singer would sing it." And above all it needs to sound Russian. Marc-Andre Hamelin may be famed for his preternatural ability to juggle mountains of notes at dizzying speed, but one doesn’t think of him as a natural for Rachmaninov. Was the match going to work?
Not for me: I’ve never heard so chilly a performance of this hot-blooded work. While Hamelin’s touch was dry and precise, Vladimir Jurowski provided the orchestral counterpart, missing all the finely-worked poetry in the string and brass effects. Hamelin’s encore – a Gershwin melody jazzed up – was (of course) a brilliant technical feat, but chilly too.
The second half of this concert was an atonement. Zemlinsky withdrew his Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) because Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande got a better reception at the same concert, and it was not heard again for eighty-three years. Listening to this tone-poem now, it’s hard to understand why this magnificent work should have been allowed to drop between the cracks: Zemlinsky’s sound-world is diamond-bright, and the structure has a pellucid clarity; Jurowski has done music a service by championing it.