Arts & Culture

NC Symphony performance is a study in Russian contrast

Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, giants of Russian classical music, supplied intriguing contrasts on the N.C. Symphony’s concert Friday in Meymandi Concert Hall. Only 17 years separate the former’s first work for orchestra and the latter’s mature piece for piano and orchestra, but the works are from two different worlds.

Conductor Grant Llewellyn got the program off to a rousing start with Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture,” written in 1954 to commemorate the Russian Revolution. Its grand fanfares, jaunty marches and whirling excitement give little hint of the composer’s usual style.

Shostakovich’s resistance to Soviet dictates came through in his music via heartfelt sadness, ominous martial themes and dark humor. In his Symphony No. 1, composed in 1926 at age 20, these elements were not as pronounced as they would later become but were already in evidence.

Llewellyn knew how the piece should go, giving its varied segments full sway, from the first movement’s cheeky march and sweet waltz to the fourth’s insistent percussiveness alternating with introspective hush. In between, he emphasized the skittering nervousness and exotic mystery in the second movement and built the third’s deeply moving theme to a sweeping climax. The players again proved their mettle individually and together.

Romantic genre

When Rachmaninoff wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1909, at age 36, he was a celebrated master of lush romanticism. The piece is more contemplative and less demonstrative than his beloved Concerto No. 2, but it has a mesmerizing beauty all its own.

Soloist Yevgeny Sudbin seemed to take his cue from the dreamy opening measures to approach the whole piece with an unusually delicate, fleeting touch. This worked well in the lovely melodies and pensive moods but gave little energy and expansiveness to the intensely passionate sections. Llewellyn followed suit, constraining the dynamic range and emotive outbursts.

Sudbin used a score, as he has in previous successful visits, but here was so intently focused on it that it seemed to limit his interpretive instincts, making many passages flatly straightforward. Nevertheless, Friday’s audience rewarded Sudbin with frenzied shouts and huzzahs for his performance of this notoriously difficult work.