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Sorrowful, powerful Rachmaninoff

Stefan Sanderling thinks Rachmaninoff gets a bad rap. Hollywood music, romantic kitsch _ such are the less than complimentary terms often applied to the composer's piano music in particular.

"His music was obviously used for describing the big emotions," Sanderling said. "But this is not the fault of the music. It's typical Russian, nostalgic music. What is wrong with sentimental music, if it's honest?"

Sanderling makes the case for Rachmaninoff throughout January, leading the Florida Orchestra in a festival of his piano music, featuring three soloists, all from Russia: Lilya Zilberstein, who plays this weekend, followed by Nikolai Lugansky and Kirill Gerstein.

Not all of Rachmaninoff's works for piano and orchestra are created equal. The most popular are the Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Sanderling had to exercise some diplomacy in assigning each soloist.

"It was hard to decide because everyone wanted to play the second concerto and the Rhapsody," the music director said on a recent afternoon, having a cappuccino at a bagel shop near his St. Petersburg home. "Nobody wanted to play the fourth concerto and the first concerto, which are not so familiar in their repertoire. For pianists like these, the second and the Rhapsody, they don't even have to look at it. They have played it 50 times, 100 times in their lives."

Zilberstein pairs the widely performed second concerto with the fourth, which is the least well-known. "It's the one where you can't just whistle the melody afterwards. It's a very sad concerto," Sanderling said.

Sanderling has a fondness for Rachmaninoff's later works, including the Fourth Piano Concerto, written after the composer left Russia because of the 1917 revolution to settle, unhappily, in New York. He died in 1943.

"All of late Rachmaninoff is sad," Sanderling said. "Everyone relates to this music, but nobody really understands it _ the deep sorrow of it. Here is a composer who cannot go home. Home is Russia, and his music is always about Russia. The late Rachmaninoff is the composer I feel very close to. The Third Symphony, Symphonic Dances, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Rhapsody."

Lugansky, who has made a number of Rachmaninoff CDs, balances the ever-popular Paganini Rhapsody with the Piano Concerto No. 1. "The first concerto is the piece of a young genius who thought he had unlimited possibilities as a composer," Sanderling said. "It's a little like the first symphony of Shostakovich, which is not a great piece; it's a piece by a great composer. It's probably the most traditional of the concertos."

Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto reached a vast audience thanks to the movie Shine, which depicted how Australian pianist David Helfgott was driven mad by the difficulty of the piece. Gerstein gets the honors here.

"It is incredibly demanding," Sanderling said. "Maybe not more demanding than the fourth concerto, but it's so much longer. You have to be somebody who really can play."

That all three soloists are Russian is interesting, but Sanderling doesn't think it gives them an advantage in interpreting Rachmaninoff, who was a great pianist himself and recorded all four concertos with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Sanderling filled out the festival with works of Ravel. Why not continue the theme with a Rachmaninoff symphony or two?

"It's like eating goulash the whole week," he said. "You like goulash, but if you have nothing else but goulash, it's too much."

With his former orchestra in Rennes, France, Sanderling once had a festival with the Rachmaninoff piano works and the last three Sibelius symphonies. That worked well, he said, and now he's curious about the effect of combining Rachmaninoff and Ravel.

"I was intrigued that Ravel and Rachmaninoff lived at the same time, and looked at the same world, yet their music is so different from each other. With Ravel, everything is about color. Rachmaninoff is powerful music. I thought I would pair them and see what it does to us."

PREVIEW

Three pianists, five pieces by Rachmaninoff for piano and orchestra, plus works of Ravel. Here's the lineup of the Florida Orchestra's Rachmaninoff festival, with music director Stefan Sanderling conducting.

Saturday, Sunday: Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 4, Ravel's La Valse; Lilya Zilberstein, piano. JAN. 15-17: Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole; Nikolai Lugansky, piano. JAN. 21-24: Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, Ravel's Pavane pour un infante defunte and Daphnis et Chloe, Suite No. 2; Kirill Gerstein, piano.

The festival's opening performances with Zilberstein are Saturday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg and Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, both at 7:30 p.m. $15.50-$50.50. (813) 286-2403 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286; www.floridaorchestra.org.

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