Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Dejan Lazic piano
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko conductor
Produced by Jared Sacks
Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 - Live recording
'You're going to compose your concerto....You will work with great ease...The concerto will be of excellent quality...'
So spoke Dr. Nikolai Dahl, of one of the pioneers of psychiatry in Russia, and in this way he successfully restored Sergey Rachmaninov's concentration during a period of creative despair after the failure of his first Symphony. Later, Rachmaninov himself was to write: 'Even though it seems unbelievable, this therapy truly helped me. I was already starting to compose by summer!'
Although they were separated by the crisis which interrupted his work, both the second Piano Concerto and the 'Moments Musicaux' date from the composer's early period, during which he was active primarily as a composer rather than a pianist. This explains the character of the second Piano Concerto, which partakes of both chamber music and symphony, despite the dazzling virtuosity of the solo piano part. Unlike many of Rachmaninov's other works, the concerto, dedicated in thanks to his doctor, was never revised after the first performance-another indication of the ease and freshness with which Rachmaninov went to work.
The formal simplicity (e.g., in the first movement: main theme in the minor, second theme in the relative major, the development section laid out as a large-scale accelerando with gradually increasing dynamics, recapitulation with both themes, although given out with different instrumentation) is just as classically conceived as the choice of tonalities for the three movements (opening and closing movements in C minor, the slow central movement in E major, just as in Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto, except for the introductory modulations), and the balanced alternation between the freely improvisatory, martially strict, and dancelike, as well as between polyphonic and homophonic writing. However, all three movements are in 2/2 time, making the frequent shifts between 2/2 and 3/2 in the third movement all the more refreshing.
It is interesting to note that on the one hand, Rachmaninov was one of the last representatives of a century-old tradition of composers who were also important virtuosi; on the other hand, he was one of the first among his kind to leave a relatively large body of recordings to bear witness to his pianistic abilities. Where other contemporaries were still attached to the romantically mannered approach to music, Rachmaninov interpreted his own works, like other music, in a coolly businesslike manner, with sparing use of the pedal, little sentiment, but a kind of expressivity which was always calibrated to the period when each piece was composed.
The 'Moments Musicaux' were written in 1896, before Rachmaninov's creative crisis; to some degree, their form and style were strongly influenced by the numerous songs which he composed in his early years. The six pieces are examples of ‘absolute', non-programmatic music (Schubert also composed 6 'Moments Musicaux', and Brahms, 3 years before Rachmaninov, composed his 6 Piano Pieces, Op. 118). The 23-year-old composer organized his 6 compositions by paired tonalities: the first four are in the minor, ascending by fourths (B-flat minor- E flat, B minor-E) and the last two are in the major (D-flat and C).
Even though they are miniatures, these pieces show all the more strongly how much creativity and composing ability the young Rachmaninov already had at his command. Each individual piece, with its distinctive characteristics, unmistakably Rachmaninov, has its own complete individuality: the long phrases which only suggest the seemingly endless Russian landscape without being in any way descriptive in No. 1; rustling, impressionistic sounds in No. 2; painful aspiration in No. 3, and heroic revolution in No. 4. After a crepuscular intermezzo (No. 5), the cycle closes with an expansive, powerful finale (No. 6.).
Rachmaninov's remark endures: 'There is enough music for a life, but not enough life for music.'
'There are serious illnesses and deadly blows from fate which entirely change a man's character. This was the effect of my own symphony on myself. When the indescribable torture of the performance had at last come to an end, I was a different man.'
In this way, Sergey Rachmaninov described the effect of the most shattering experience of his life: the total fiasco that was the premiere in 1897 of his First Symphony, Op. 13 in St. Petersburg. Alexander Glazunov, the conductor, had probably had a bit too much to drink, and was in no state to pilot his orchestra past the dangerous shoals of this score. With the derisive whistles of the audience ringing in his ears, deeply disappointed, Rachmaninov returned to his native Moscow, where he tore the score to shreds and sank into a deep depression. After his death, the work was reconstructed from the surviving orchestral parts and performed in 1945 with great success in Moscow. But for the time being, Rachmaninov had lost all faith in his future as a composer.
'Agonising hours spent in doubt and hard thinking had brought me to the conclusion that I ought to give up composing. I was obviously unfitted for it, and therefore it would be better if I made an end to it at once. A paralysing apathy possessed me. I did not live; I vegetated, idle and hopeless.'
Perhaps that self-doubt was reinforced most powerfully by the symphony's poor reviews in the press, particularly that written by Rachmaninov's colleague composer Cesar Cui, one of the surviving members of the so-called ‘Mighty Handful', that rebellious group of composers who strove to establish a Russian national school of composition. Cui called Rachmaninov's First Symphony the work of a student who had tried to depict the Seven Plagues of Egypt in music.
Now came three fallow years, during which Rachmaninov did not compose anything. He spent part of the summer of 1897 on the Nizhni-Novgorod estate in the region where he had been born, obeying his doctor's advice to rest. Instead of composing, he made an arrangement of Glazunov's Sixth Symphony for piano four hands; note that Glazunov was the conductor of the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony! Rachmaninov also started conducting again. Savva Mamontov, the wealthy captain of industry and opera impresario, invited him to be the second conductor of his private opera venture in Moscow. After only one season with the opera, Rachmaninov had gained two great advantages: he had been distracted from his broken dreams of composing, and he had become friends with the phenomenal bass, Feodor Chaliapine. Together, they worked on preparing Chaliapine's roles in Rimsky-Korsakov's ‘Mozart and Salieri" and Musorgsky's ‘Boris Godunov'. They traveled to Yalta, in the Crimea, in April of 1900, and spent time in a sort of artists' colony where they were cordially received by the composer Kalinnikov and the writers Chekhov and Gorky. Chaliapine gave a recital there, and his program included several songs by Rachmaninov. At the end of the concert, a little man with a beard came backstage, where he first complimented Chaliapine and then turned to Rachmaninov. 'Mr. Rachmaninov, no one knows your name yet, but someday you will be famous.' The little man with the big words of praise was Chekhov.
With the help of hypnotism sessions with Dr. Nikolai Dahl in Moscow during the first four months of that year, Rachmaninov took his first new steps as a composer in July of the same year, in Italy. Together with Chaliapine, he worked on the singer's upcoming role in Boito's ‘Mefistofele' at La Scala. But he also composed the first love duet for his new opera, ‘Francesca da Rimini', which marked the real new beginning of his life as a composer. As recently as June, he had written to Tchaikovsky's brother Modest: 'I have absolutely lost my facility to compose, so it seems, and all my thoughts are directed to get it back.'
But sometime around the time that he was composing the love duet for Francesca da Rimini, a letter to his friend Morozov, on July 18, 1900 found him in a very different mood: 'I leave here tomorrow for Russia - and for no other place...I leave here enthusiastically and with the firm intention of working a lot when reaching home.' And that is what happened. On returning to Russia, he set down the second and third movements of his Second Piano Concerto on paper; it would later be published by Gutheil as Opus 18. As Rachmaninov later told his first biographer Oscar von Riesemann (1934): 'The material grew in bulk, and new musical ideas began to stir within me, far more than I needed for my concerto.' Although the first movement had yet to be written, Rachmaninov made the brave gesture of performing the second and third movements separately in December 1900. It was his first concert appearance in eight years as a pianist with an orchestra. He had not published any music since the Moments musicaux appeared in 1896; now, after a silence of four years, the Suite for 2 pianos Op. 17 was published together with the Second Piano Concerto in C minor, Op.18, composed almost simultaneously and dedicated to Dr. Nikolai Dahl.
The concerto's first complete performance took place on 9 November 1901 in Moscow, conducted by Rachmaninov's fellow student Alexander Siloti. Early performances in England were given with Basil Sapellnikov and Siloti in 1901 and 1902. Rachmaninov himself performed his Second Piano Concerto in 1908 in London, with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sergey Koussevitski, who was making his London debut. And so the reborn composer's new opus grew to attain worldwide fame, acquiring the same status as the First Piano Concerto of Rachmaninov's idol Tchaikovsky, or Beethoven's ‘Eroica'.
Clemens Romijn (Translator: David Shapero)