Jeremy Filsell and Nigel Potts Reinvent Rachmaninoff
The organ at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church on the Upper West Side has an unexpectedly bright, ambered tone in the style of French organs of the mid-1800s. But the pipes here don’t have the kind of slow, echoey resonance they would in a marble cathedral. That enabled pianist/organist Jeremy Filsell and organist Nigel Potts to play their fascinating, timbrally rich arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at a briskly triumphant clip that they couldn’t have gotten away with in a venue where the notes take longer to echo out, reaffirming Cameron Carpenter‘s recent observations on how much the diversity of organs around the world pretty much determines what can be played on them and what can’t.
The adventurousness of this program wasn’t limited to reinventing Rachmaninoff. The night’s theme, Filsell told the crowd, was composers born in 1873 along with the iconic Russian Romantic. Filsell opened on the organ with Belgian composer Joseph Jongen’s Sonata Eroica, a dynamically-charged blend of baroque precision and lush Romantic harmony counterbalanced by an eerie, otherworldly, much more forward-looking quality. In places, it reminded of Widor’s symphonies. In its more Germanic moments, it echoed another composer on the bill, Max Reger, whose Toccata & Fugue in D Minor Potts delivered with a steady verve. Both Potts and Filsell also played their own solo transcriptions of Rachmaninoff works, Potts doing a rapturous, aptly cantabile take of the famous Vocalise, Filsell doing two glittering, cascading early songs, Melody, Op. 21, No. 9 and Dreams, Op. 38, No. 5 at the piano.
But the piece everybody came out for was the Concerto. Filsell told everyone that it’s his favorite of Rachmaninoff’s four, reaffirmed by how much joy and transcendence he brought to it. Like so much of the composer’s work, its transcendent message and undercurrent of hope against hope couldn’t be more clear. Filsell played the opening movement with a steady, lilting, often jaunty sway, then pulled back and let the second resonate with an angst-drenched rubato. Meanwhile, Potts nimbly handled the orchestral score, and that was a revelation. The steady precision and often very quiet, even minimal approach he gave it underscored the composer’s ceaselessly clever counterpoint, contrasts and conversational sensibility that could just as easily get lost in the wash of a string section. They took it out with a victorious, towering splendor. One can only think that a nineteen-year old Rachmaninoff – that’s how old he was when he debuted the initial version of this work – would have joined in a standing ovation along with the audience. While it doesn’t appear that this concert was recorded, Filsell and Potts’ arrangement of both this piece and the immortal Piano Concerto No. 2 are both up at youtube in their entirety.
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