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ClassicsOnline Home » RACHMANINOV: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 4
BBC Music Magazine
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1
Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor, Op. 40
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninov was among those Russian composers who chose exile, rather than remain in Russia after the Revolution of 1917, the consequent civil turmoil and, as it turned out, the years of despotic oppression that followed. He was born at Semyonovo in 1873 into a family of strong military traditions on his mother's side and more remotely on his father's. A tendency to extravagance had depleted his father's fortunes and made it necessary to sell off much of their land and dissipating his wife's dowry. As a result of this, the childhood of Rachmaninov was largely spent at the one remaining family estate at Oneg, near Novgorod. The reduction in family circumstances had at least one happier result. When it became necessary to sell this estate and move to St Petersburg, the expense of educating the boy for the Imperial service proved too great. Rachmaninov could make use, instead, of his musical gifts, entering St Petersburg Conservatory at the age of nine with a scholarship.
Showing no particular industry as a student and lacking the attention he needed at home, in 1885 Rachmaninov failed all his general subject examinations at the Conservatory and there were threats that his scholarship would be withdrawn. His mother, now separated from her husband and responsible for her son's welfare, arranged, on the advice of the well known pianist Alexander Ziloti, that he should move to Moscow to study with Zverev, a teacher known to impose the strictest discipline. In Zverev's house, however uncongenial the rigorous routine, he acquired much of his phenomenal ability as a pianist, while broadening his musical understanding by attending concerts in the city. At the age of fifteen he became a pupil of Zverev's former student Ziloti, a musician who had also studied with Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Rubinstein and, thereafter, with Liszt. Rachmaninov had lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Sergey Taneyev and Arensky, and his growing interest in composition led to a quarrel with Zverev and removal to the house of his relations, the Satins.
In 1891 Rachmaninov completed his piano studies at the Conservatory and the composition of his first piano concerto. The following year he graduated from the composition class and composed the notorious Prelude in C sharp minor, a piece that was to haunt him by its excessive popularity. His early career brought initial success as a composer, halted by the failure of his first symphony at its first performance in 1897, when it was conducted badly by Glazunov, apparently drunk at the time, and then reviewed in the cruellest terms by Cesar Cui, who described it as a student attempt to depict in music the seven plagues of Egypt. Rachmaninov busied himself as a conductor, accepting an engagement in this capacity with Mamontov's Moscow Private Russian Opera Company. He was only able to return to composition after a course of treatment with Dr Nikolay Dahl, a believer in the efficacy of hypnotism. The immediate result was the second of his four piano concertos, a work that has proved to be one of the most immediately popular of all he wrote.
The years before the Russian revolution brought continued successful activity as a composer and as a conductor. In 1902 Rachmaninov married Natalya Satina and went on to pursue a career that was bringing him increasing international fame. There were journeys abroad and a busy professional life, from which summer holidays at the estate of Ivanovka, which he finally acquired from the Satins in 1910, provided respite. During the war, however depressing the circumstances, he continued his concert engagements, not being required for military service, as he had anticipated. All this was interrupted by the abdication of the Tsar in 1917 and the beginning of the Revolution.
Rachmaninov left Russia in 1917. From then until his death in Beverley Hills in 1943, he was obliged to rely largely on performance for a living. Now there was, in consequence, much less time for composition, as he undertook demanding concert-tours, during which he dazzled audiences in Europe and America with his remarkable powers as a pianist. His house at Ivanovka was destroyed in the Russian civil war and in 1931, the year of his Variations on a Theme of Corelli, his music was banned in Russia, to be permitted once again two years later. He spent much time in America, where there were lucrative concert-tours, but established a music publishing-house in Paris and built for himself a villa near Lucerne, where he completed his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 and his Third Symphony a year later. In 1939 he left Europe, to spend his final years in the United States.
Rachmaninov completed the Piano Concerto No 1 in F sharp minor during the summer of 1891. He had brought forward his final piano examination at Moscow Conservatory a year, to avoid a change of teacher, with Ziloti's resignation from the Conservatory after the appointment of Safonov as director. Once he had successfully completed his examinations, he had travelled with Ziloti to Ivanovka, then a summer estate belonging to the Satins. He performed the first movement of the concerto at a student concert at the Conservatory the following spring, as he prepared for his final examination in composition, the writing of a one-act opera, for which he received the Great Gold Medal, a rare distinction. It was not until 1917 that Rachmaninov revised the concerto, which he had dedicated to Ziloti, working on it in Moscow in the early winter. By December he had left Russia never to return. The chance of a concert engagement in Stockholm allowed him to leave the country, followed by his wife Natalya and his two daughters. Now his first three piano concertos, the second completed in 1901 and the third in 1909, became part of his stock-in-trade, with the concertos of Tchaikovsky and of Liszt.
The Piano Concerto No. 1 was not, in fact, Rachmaninov's first attempt at the form. In 1889 he had sketched the plan of a Concerto in C minor, which was never completed. The Concerto in F sharp minor, in its earlier form, was performed by Rachmaninov on a number of occasions, but he grew increasingly dissatisfied with it and recast it completely during those uneasy weeks in late 1917, giving the orchestration greater clarity and in general tightening the construction. The first movement opens with a brass fanfare, followed by a rapid solo passage of descending octaves and the weighty chords that we might have expected. The orchestra introduces the first theme, taken up by the soloist. There is a second theme, marked meno mosso, and the opening of the movement has a part to play in what follows, notably in the extended cadenza. The slow movement, in D major, has been compared to a Chopin Nocturne. It is relatively short and almost at once allows the piano to have its own way in an expressive melody, leading to increasing complexity of figuration. The final Allegro vivace, opening in 9/8, contradicted in the second bar by the piano's quadruple-time 12/8, continues this pattern of contrasting metres. The excitement of the opening leads to a more tranquil mood in a central section marked Andante ma non troppo, in the key of E flat. The original key and mood are restored as the concerto moves forward to its final optimistic F sharp major.
Rachmaninov completed his Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor between January and August 1926 and gave the first performance the following March in Philadelphia, with the orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. He revised the concerto in 1941, giving the first performance of the revised version in October that year, again in Philadelphia, the performance now conducted by Eugene Ormandy. On neither occasion was the work particularly well received. The revision had responded to criticisms of the work's length, which was now much reduced, but the expectation aroused, with a knowledge of the earlier concertos and, by 1941, of the Paganini Rhapsody were not met. He dedicated the work to the emigre Russian composer Nikolay Medtner. The first movement opens with a brief orchestral introduction of six bars, after which the soloist enters with a heavy series of solid and dramatic chords, the substance of the first principal theme, derived from the Étude-tableau in C minor, Opus 33, No.3 of 1914. The piano later introduces a more lyrical secondary theme, as the movement develops. The slow movement need not suffer by the chance resemblance of the first three notes of the principal theme to the opening of the nursery-rhyme Three Blind Mice. The resemblance is superficial and irrelevant and should not detract from the expressive dialogue between soloist and orchestra. The final Allegro vivace follows without a break, abruptly introduced by the orchestra, and then, more delicately, by the piano, which goes on to more elaborate technical display, to a lyrical chordal episode and to reminiscences of the first movement that provide the concerto with an over-all thematic unity. It should be said that although the Fourth Concerto is the least popular and least often heard of Rachmaninov's concertos, it nevertheless has much to he said for it. It may still lack the tautness of construction that the composer strove to impart in his revision of the work, but in its lyricism and in its exploration of a still further extended harmonic language, it remains an attractive work of considerable interest.
The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was written in the space of a few weeks in 1934 and is based on the theme used by Paganini as the basis of a set of solo violin variations that form the last of his 24 Caprices. The melody was to serve other composers, such as Brahms and Liszt, and has continued to do so.
To Rachmaninov the Paganini theme suggested the complementary use of another, more ancient melody, that of the sequence that once formed part of the Latin Requiem Mass, the Dies irae. This second melody, which Rachmaninov had used appropriately enough in The Isle of the Dead, was to appear again in his final work, the Symphonic Dances of 1940. It had served other 19th century composers as a symbol of death, whether in the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz, in Liszt's Totentanz or, in Russia, in Tchaikovsky's Third Suite,
Although the Rhapsody seems in origin to have to have had no programmatic significance, the composer provided a narrative explanation for Fokin's ballet Paganini, the choreographic version of the legend according to which the great violinist had sold his soul, Faust-like, to the Devil in return for perfection as a violinist and for the love of a woman (romantic rumours that Paganini himself had been at pains to contradict). The Dies irae is taken to represent the Devil, while the original theme is Paganini himself. Certainly the variations that make up the Rhapsody include episodes of lyrical tenderness, forming a central section of romantic intensity, followed by what might seem the brilliant diablerie of the last six of the 24 variations.
A prize-winner on no less than seventeen occasions in international competitions, the young German pianist Bernd Glemser was born in Dürbheim and was still a pupil of Vitalij Margulis when he was appointed professor at the Saarbrticken Musikhochschule, in succession to Andor Foldes, himself the successor of Walter Gieseking. In 1992 he won the Andor Foldes Prize and in 1993 the first European Pianists' Prize. With a wide repertoire ranging from the Baroque to the contemporary, Bernd Glemser has a particular affection for the virtuoso music of the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, the work of Liszt, Tausig, Godowski, Busoni, and especially that of Rachmaninov. His career has brought appearances at the major music festivals and leading concert halls throughout Europe and further afield.
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Katowice (PNRSO) was founded in 1935 in Warsaw through the initiative of well-known Polish conductor and composer Grzegorz Fitelberg. Under his direction the ensemble worked till the outbreak of the World War II. Soon after the war, in March 1945, the orchestra was resurrected in Katowice by the eminent Polish conductor Witold Rowicki. In 1947 Grzegorz Fitelberg returned to Poland and became artistic director of the PNRSO. He was followed by a series of distinguished Polish conductors and, since 1983, Antoni Wit. The orchestra has appeared with conductors and soloists of the greatest distinction and has recorded for many international record labels. For Naxos, the PNRSO are recording the complete symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Mahler.
Antoni Wit was born in Cracow in 1944 and studied there, before becoming assistant to Witold Rowicki with the National Philharmonic Orchestra in Warsaw in 1967. He studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and with Penderecki and in 1971 was a prize-winner in the Herbert von Karajan Competition. Study at Tanglewood with Skrowaczewski and Seiji Ozawa was followed by appointment as Principal Conductor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice. Antoni Wit has undertaken many engagements abroad with major orchestras, ranging from the Berlin Philharmonic and the BBC Welsh and Scottish Symphony Orchestras to the Kusatsu Festival Orchestra in Japan.
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RACHMANINOV: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 4