TAMPA — It was a night of famously glorious musical climaxes in the Florida Orchestra's all-Russian program Friday. First, there was Rachmaninoff's greatest hit, the swoony 18th variation of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the irresistible melody that blossoms forth first in the solo piano, then in the strings like a miraculous flower after a hard Russian winter. Second was another of the signature moments of orchestral music, the sonic splendor of The Great Gate of Kiev, the concluding movement of Mussorgsky's walk through a gallery, Pictures at an Exhibition.
The star of the concert, in Ferguson Hall of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, was German pianist Peter Rosel, the soloist in Rachmaninoff's set of variations on a Paganini caprice.
Although he is not actually that big, Rosel is one of those virtuosos who seems to engulf the piano, commanding Rachmaninoff's incredible passagework with ease. I was as struck by the simplicity of his playing — soft, probing notes that had a lovely expressiveness — as by the amazing ornamentation that he brought to some of the most rapid runs. And of course the big tune was to die for.
There were pitch and balance problems in the opening variation and theme, but they were quickly resolved by conductor Stefan Sanderling. The orchestra playing had an edgy, rambunctious quality that I liked as a contrast to the romantic sweep of the piano.
The audience rewarded Rosel with a huge ovation, and he responded with an encore. It was more Rachmaninoff, one of his Moments Musicaux.
The concert opened with a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's most ambitious opera (he wrote 16), The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya. Much of the music was straight out of Wagner, full of murmuring, layered strings beneath a haunting oboe, played by principal Katherine Young.
Pictures at an Exhibition occupied the second half of the program, but it wasn't the familiar Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's work for piano. Instead, it was the orchestration by pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, who has said he wanted a heavier, more Slavic, not so French sound. And it was all that and more, with a darker feel than the Ravel version, but it was also louder and less nuanced. The big brass passages tended to blare and flatten out in acoustically challenged Ferguson.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.