The Portland Symphony Orchestra offers repeats of only three of its eight classical programs, so when a concert is snowed out, there’s a good chance that listeners will be out of luck. This week, the orchestra and its audience beat those odds: Sunday afternoon’s performance was canceled, but the program – Beethoven’s and Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphonies – was repeated on Tuesday evening at Merrill Auditorium, and seats were available. When Robert Moody asked the sizable crowd at his pre-concert talk whether there were any “refugees from Sunday,” as he put it, several hands were raised.

He made it worth their effort. Moody is nearly finished with his Beethoven cycle, and though the Second Symphony was held until nearly the end (only the Ninth remains, to be performed in April), it is a crucial part of Beethoven’s evolution from a Classicist in the Haydn mold to the paradigm of iconoclastic Romanticism, a change that occurred (in symphonic terms, at least) with his titanic Third Symphony.

The Second, like the First, is a relatively courtly work, yet in some of the odd balances and tart harmonies of the opening movement, and in the sharp accents and humorous touches in the brisk Scherzo and finale, you can hear Beethoven punching at formality and trying to find ways to subvert conventions.

Moody’s performance left no doubt that he was attuned to those elements, and if at times he seemed to overstate some of Beethoven’s bits of unruliness, he was clearly intent on demonstrating that polite readings of the Second miss the point, and the work deserves better than its reputation as an also-ran. The players were fully on board, and produced a sound that had an appealing hint of grittiness that was perfect for this chapter of Beethoven’s development.

That grittiness also stood in stark contrast to the warm, plush sound the orchestra produced in the Rachmaninoff Second, a score composed 105 years after the Beethoven, and steeped in the glowing, heart-on-the-sleeve seductiveness of late Romanticism.

Moody revived a long-standing controversy about whether to observe the composer-approved cuts in the Rachmaninoff. He argued, in his pre-concert talk, that he prefers the trimmed version, and that was how he performed it. Most conductors, these days, play the work in full, and in fact, the program notes, by PSO trombonist Mark Rohr, argued that this is a good thing, leaving the impression that Moody would do so as well.

The story, as Moody told it, was that Leopold Stokowski, the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1912 to 1940 (the last few years in tandem with Eugene Ormandy) persuaded Rachmaninoff that the work was too long, whereupon Rachmaninoff made surgical trims that eliminated only music that is also heard elsewhere in the piece. He added that listeners who dislike the cuts insist that Stokowski strong-armed the composer.

But it’s not that simple. Jeremy Rothman, who oversees the Philadelphia Orchestra’s artistic planning, recently told me that he receives one or two queries every year about Rachmaninoff’s cuts, from conductors considering them, and that although he provides a list from the orchestra’s archives, he also notes that the trims were made for the sake of recording the work on 78 rpm discs, which held four to six minutes of music per side, and that they did not represent Rachmaninoff’s artistic vision.

Stokowski himself never recorded the work commercially, but a live performance recorded at the Hollywood Bowl in 1946 – three years after Rachmaninoff’s death – shows that he played the work in full, suggesting that the “Stokowski made him do it” tale may be specious.

For those of us who grew up hearing it that way, the trimmed version sounds “normal,” and indeed, Moody’s rubato-rich performance sounded fully coherent, and certainly long enough, at nearly 50 minutes, due in part to his lingering tempos in the tuneful Adagio. Trims aside, he conveyed the spirit and beauty of the score and was supported in this by some magnificent solo playing by the orchestra’s principals, most notably concertmaster Charles Dimmick, clarinetist Thomas Parchman, English hornist Julianne Verret and French hornist Lauren Winter.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

filed under: