City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 And 3
All Music Guide
All Music Guide
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Rachmaninov: The Second and Fourth Piano Concertos
The two concertos presented here show us two contrasting sides of Rachmaninov's fortunes: the first represents a triumphant recovery from public setback, the latter - in worldly rather than artistic terms - an unexpected defeat.
Following the catastrophic premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 (conducted by an apparently drunk Alexander Glazunov), Rachmaninov, then nearly twenty-four, suffered such a severe depression that his creative imagination deserted him almost entirely. After two years of creative paralysis, he sought the help of Nikolai Dahl, a doctor renowned for his success in the use of hypnosis (and an accomplished amateur violinist), with whom Rachmaninov spent much time talking about music.
In January 1900 Rachmaninov attended daily sessions with Dr Dahl, whose principal focus was the concerto Rachmaninov had promised to write for London's Philharmonic Society in 1899. As he lay drowsily in Dr Dahl's study, the same phrases were repeated to him again and again: "You will begin to write your concerto ... you will work with great facility ... the concerto will be of excellent quality". Writing many years later, Rachmaninov observed, "It may sound incredible, but this cure really helped me. By the beginning of the summer I again began to compose. The material grew in bulk, and new musical ideas began to stir within me - more than enough for my concerto." Fittingly, he dedicated the work to Dr Dahl, who later took part in a performance of it, playing viola in the Orchestra of the American University in Beirut.
From its first performance, the concerto's popularity has been continuous and unabating. Yet amongst critics and musicians alike, both the work and its composer have remained controversial. Not even its very opening, surely one of the most stirring in the entire concerto repertoire, has escaped censure. Indeed only days before the first performance, the carping of the composer Nikita Morozov looked like unsettling Rachmaninov again. For a moment, Dr Dahl receded into the background, as Rachmaninov's confidence plummeted. He wrote to Morozov:
"You are right! ... the first theme is not a first theme, but an introduction. Not even a fool would believe, when I start to play the second theme, that that is what it is. Everyone will think that this is the beginning of the concerto ... I am in despair!"
But any doubt was fleeting. Five days later he gave the triumphant first performance, and the crisis was behind him for good. Compositions flowed from his pen, and by the time he and his family left Russia permanently in 1917, he had all but six of his forty-five published works behind him. Given that he was only forty-four at the time and with a quarter century still ahead of him, the statistic is both striking and significant.
Any explanation must be circumstantial. With the combined chaos and horror of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, the Rachmaninov's were forced to leave most of their belongings behind, and were journeying into an unknown world. Jt was thus out of financial need, and beset by anxiety about the future, that Rachmaninov chose to embrace a career as a full-time concert pianist. A life of intensive practising, repertoire-building and travel is hardly conducive to composition, and for a few years he produced only a few transcriptions of works by other composers. Though he settled in the United States, Rachmaninov never felt truly at home there, and - even when in Europe - could not rid himself of a feeling of uprootedness. It may therefore be significant that when he came to write his long-awaited Fourth Piano Concerto in 1925 (his first original work after leaving Russia), he drew some of his best material from the discarded Etude-Tableau in C minor (originally the third in his Op.33 set of 1911) - a piece, in short, wilfully exiled from its musical homeland.
Rachmaninov had problems with the work almost from the outset. After eight years without composing, he was in more than usually self-doubting mood. As he wrote to Nikolai Medtner, the work's dedicatee,
"I have received the copied piano score - 110 pages! - and I was terrified! ... I recalled my idle talk with you on the need to compress and not to be loquacious. I was ashamed. I also noticed that the theme of the second movement is the theme of the first movement in Schumann's Piano Concerto. How is it that you didn't point this out to me?"
But this resemblance is very brief (just the first three notes, though much repeated), and Rachmaninov's theme has a distinctly different, and very Russian, character. That, however, was the least of Rachmaninov's worries, for at the work's premiere, in March 1927, the concerto was met with critical accusations of length and diffuseness, and after completing the programmed performances Rachmaninov, understandably dispirited, left for a spell in Europe. Here he made considerable cuts and revised much of the orchestration and piano writing before sanctioning the score for publication. This version too, however, aroused critical hostility, and Rachmaninov proceeded to shelve the work for another fourteen years before revising it yet again - which he did, extensively. Yet despite impressive and committed advocacy in recent years by leading pianists, the work has remained in the shadow of the Second and Third Concertos. Music-lovers who allow themselves the privilege of listening with unprejudiced ears, however, will be rewarded with many passages of exceptional quality, which even if they sometimes fail to cohere, may be richly savoured for their own sake. These include the thrilling opening of the work, and much of the slow movement, particularly the big, yearning theme towards the end, unfurled by cellos and violins against a background of repeated chords in the piano. The final scoring is masterly, the dialogue between soloist and orchestra often scintillating, and there is no shortage of the expected "big tunes". Not a work without its problems, but its continuing neglect is hard to explain.