SERGEY RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40
BORN: April 1, 1873, in Semyonovo, Russia
DIED: March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, CA
WORK COMPOSED: 1926; rev. 1941
WORLD PREMIERE: March 18, 1927; Rachmaninov, piano; Leopold Stokowsky conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra
Rachmaninov’s best-known piano concertos remain his ripe and romantic second and third essays in that genre. If his First Piano Concerto, dating from his student years at the Moscow Conservatory, drew a less-than-enthusiastic response from critics who noted a lack of concision and formal rectitude, by the time the composer began thinking about a fourth piano concerto he had gained a great deal of compositional experience and enjoyed a broad and passionate following among music-lovers across the globe.
Still, the world of music (and virtually everything else!) had changed dramatically. The October Revolution prompted Rachmaninov to flee to the West to protect himself from Bolshevist antipathy to his privileged roots. In Western Europe and the United States, the composer came in contact with the music of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartók, Schoenberg, the French composers who constituted Les Six, and other avatars of modernism, encounters that challenged the heir to Tchaikovsky’s ardent Romanticism. Rachmaninov also absorbed the rhythms and inflections of jazz. He greatly admired the riveting pianism of jazz great Art Tatum and was an attending luminary at the premiere of Gershwin’s landmark Rhapsody in Blue.
Though a current of ingrained Romanticism continued to flow through Rachmaninov’s veins, the music he composed during the years left to him clearly show the effect of the newer styles. One notes, for example, a comparative leanness of orchestral textures — more Stravinsky and Prokofiev, say, than Tchaikovsky. Furthermore, Rachmaninov never lost his penchant for engaging melody, yet his ensuing music focused increasingly on shorter thematic material, again in keeping with the changing shape of new music. One also hears greater concision and concentration as well as a retreat from luxuriant embellishment and pianistic musing.
These changes in perspective and approach are heard in the Fourth Piano Concerto, both in its original form from 1927 and in its final incarnation in 1941. It should be noted that to this day critical opinion remains divided on the question of which version is the better piece. Such pianists as Vladimir Ashkenazy and Leslie Howard have argued that the earlier version was well-nigh perfect as is. These and others contend that Rachmaninov should not have bowed to pressure to change what he had written. In any case, the 1941 version is certainly more concise and less given to rhetorical prolixity. The primary changes are leaner orchestral textures, somewhat simplified piano writing — notably in the central Largo — and a significantly revised finale. In sum, Rachmaninov reduced the number of measures from 902 to 824.
In contrast to the effective but understated beginnings of the Second and Third piano concertos, the opening Allegro vivace of the Fourth Piano Concerto launches into action with an energetic orchestral salvo that introduces the main theme, a broadly flowing tune courtesy of the piano. The memorable tune gains support from rich piano chords and scurrying woodwind triplets. After a transitional section replete with rippling piano figurations, the soloist regales the listener with a lyrical second theme followed by yet another equally cantabile offering from the violins. The central development section interweaves new melodic fragments into the main theme, creating a feeling of on-the-spot improvisation. Note the appearance of the medieval Dies irae motif, much-used in many of Rachmaninov’s works. During the final recapitulation, where the order of the themes is reversed, a solo flute reprises the lyrical second theme. A brief coda brings the movement to a terse close.
The second movement, marked Largo, struck the concerto’s dedicatee, composer Nikolai Medtner, as an inspired evocation of a religious procession. The soloist initiates things with a brief introduction before yielding to the strings to announce the main theme on which the entire movement is built. A sense of ambivalence in the opening section has been noted by some commentators, who allege that the composer was uncertain about the changes in his style and musical vocabulary. For others, however, the see-sawing between minor and major tonalities is redolent of Rachmaninov’s penchant for bittersweet sentiment. Mid-movement finds the theme skillfully transformed into a horn-driven sonic maelstrom answered by the piano. The movement closes with a return to the reverent calm of the opening moments.
Filled with jabbing harmonies and a kind of sardonic humor one associates with Rachmaninov's Russian confrères Prokofiev and Shostakovich, the virtuosic concluding Allegro vivace brushes aside the preceding Largo’s reverie. Brilliant virtuosity is the order of the day in the finale, by far the most extensively revised part of the concerto. To help unify the overall conception, Rachmaninov quotes thematic fragments from the opening movement.
© Steven Lowe
SERGEY RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
WORK COMPOSED: 1909
WORLD PREMIERE: November 28, 1909, in New York City; Sergey Rachmaninov, piano; Walter Damrosch conducting
Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto was the performance vehicle for a 30-concert tour of the United States arranged for the composer, who agreed to this jaunt only after agonizing contemplation. Ultimately, his doubts and fears of homesickness yielded to the temptations of ample financial remuneration that included the possibility of purchasing a big and expensive American car. Rachmaninov’s performance of the Third Piano Concerto mesmerized his American audiences so much that he was invited by both the Boston and Cincinnati orchestras to become their permanent conductor. The pull to return to native Russia was too strong, and Rachmaninov happily sailed for his homeland, though with the Revolution in 1917 he was forced to leave and settle for good in America.
The concerto is cast in three large-scale movements. Its length and technical demands are considerable, and serve as a reminder of the composer’s great facility and endurance as a pianist. The massive opening movement — Allegro ma non tanto — begins with a sparsely accompanied theme given in octaves by the solo instrument, a melody that recalls music from the Russian Orthodox liturgy. This simple tune proves a potent catalyst for astonishingly difficult pianistic gymnastics throughout the entire movement. A second theme, marked expressive, provides some “technical” relief — moments of relative rest. The ample development section focuses primarily on transformations of the opening tune, and before the movement closes, an extended cadenza creates yet another Everest-like peak to scale.
The Intermezzo is a set of variations with an added, separate episode. Described by the premiere’s annotator as “tender and melancholy, yet not tearful,” this is music of poignancy and sadness, characteristics not entirely swept aside by a jaunty scherzo-like passage that precedes the final variation.
The Finale is a virtuoso’s delight, assuming that he or she still has the wherewithal to bring it off. Exuberant and larger than life, this febrile music uses further transformations of the concerto’s opening theme in demonstrating Rachmaninov’s predilection for variation technique. The driving rhythmic intensity of the finale is twice interrupted, once by a deft and delectable scherzando and again by a sad lento, before notching up to vivace, then vivacissimo, and ultimately presto.
© Seattle Symphony
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