City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Piano Concertos Nos. 2 And 4
All Music Guide
All Music Guide
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One before three or three before one?
Sergei Rachmaninov composed his four piano concertos in the order of their numbering and opus numbers, which is also the order in which they were published. However, this chronology must be viewed with a certain degree of relativism: 26 years after completing his Piano Concerto No. 1 Opus 1 in 1891, Rachmaninov subjected it to a thorough revision which yielded the version that has since almost totally eclipsed the original form. A comparison of the two versions of this concerto illustrates the composer's evolution and contradicts those who claim that Rachmaninov's style stopped developing after his early years. Music historians deem it appropriate to treat the two versions as distinct and different works due to the divergences between them.
Bearing the Opus number 1, the first version of the concerto is clearly branded as a first work, as Rachmaninov's first fully valid score. The composer, who had just turned 18 and was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory, gave the first performance of the first movement there on 17 (29) March 1892. A complete performance of this version with Rachmaninov at the piano never took place. Other pianists, however, occasionally played it, even though the publisher Gutheil printed solely a piano reduction. The first documented performance was held in London in 1900. Rachmaninov had originally been scheduled to play the work there himself, but by then he had distanced himself from the score and had already made it known that he would never play the work again without a prior revision. By 1917 the time had come. Some people believe that Rachmaninov had become disenchanted with the creation of new works because of the uncertain political situation in Russia, which is why he turned to the revision of an earlier work instead. Nevertheless, the revision was already underway when the October Revolution began. Rachmaninov had since composed two other piano concertos, and there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that the fourth concerto, which saw the light of day as Opus 40 only in 1926, had already been broadly sketched out since 1914. The new score of the Concerto No. 1 bears the date 10 (23) November 1917 and is the composer's last significant work before his emigration.
With respect to form, Rachmaninov had originally emulated Edvard Grieg's piano concerto very closely in his first version, and filled this mold with music reminiscent of Tchaikovsky's B flat minor concerto. At several passages, including the very beginning, the Grieg model (which goes back in its turn to the Schumann concerto) is still clearly recognizable in the second version as well. In the finale, however, which underwent the most radical alterations of all, Rachmaninov covered up his tracks: the lyrical theme of the middle section that serves as a development had originally been reprised at the end - exactly as in the Grieg piece - in a grand apotheosis. Incidentally, Rachmaninov had also proceeded similarly with the lyrical themes of the finales of his second and third concertos as well. In the revised version, Rachmaninov created an entirely new coda in which the theme is now omitted. At the same time, he shifted the middle section from D major to E flat major and practically tore it from its context through the jagged transitions that were typical of his late style. There are several completely new sections in the first movement as well, such as the long tutti at the beginning of the development, which replaced a passage that was all too redolent of Tchaikovsky. Both the high-strung, filigree piano writing as well as the new, wind-heavy orchestration recall the then half-finished Concerto No. 4 more than any previous concerto by Rachmaninov. Despite these stylistic inconsistencies, the composer and the critics were equally satisfied with the revision. Nevertheless, the work remained on the outskirts of the repertoire even in its new form, which Rachmaninov first presented to the public in New York on 28 January 1919. Maybe he should have kept the apotheosis of the lyrical theme after all...?
Today, Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 is the most famous piano concerto of the period between 1900 and World War I. It is known as "Rach 3", a forceful epithet found in no other composer's works. Unlike "Rach 2" - the Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 19 of 1900 - the Third made its breakthrough only gradually. One of the reasons is unquestionably the technical difficulty of the piano part. Whether it really is the most demanding of all romantic (in the broadest sense) concertos is a moot point; the colossal Busoni concerto, the Reger concerto, the Medtner concertos, several works by "composing virtuosos" and even Brahms's second concerto all belong in the same league. It remains unclear how Rachmaninov's third concerto acquired its particular aura - although it is possible that Vladimir Horowitz played a decisive role here. To be sure, the concerto is not only exceptionally difficult, but also highly effective. Although it is undeniably Rachmaninov's most sophisticated concerto with regards to musical substance as well as technique, and even if it is no longer de rigueur to dismiss Rachmaninov wholesale as was customary after World War II (and even occasionally before it), there is no dearth of critical views on this work. In later years, Rachmaninov regularly made a cut in the middle section of the finale, which seems to stand still or at least rotate upon itself in spite of its rapid tempo.
None of the three movements in Rachmaninov's third concerto correspond to the standard form. In the first movement, sonata and rondo form are interwoven after the fashion of Anton Rubinstein's Piano Concerto No. 4 of 1864, which, incidentally, was also in D minor. In addition, the cadenza assumes the function of a recapitulation here. Rachmaninov notated two versions of the cadenza; he himself always played the variant printed as the main text, which is shorter and technically simpler. The powerfully emphatic ossia variant, which is actually the earlier of the two, was only tackled by later performers. Perhaps Rachmaninov wrote the new variant and designated it as the main text precisely because the original version all too clearly echoed the Rubinstein concerto, which was still a common repertoire piece at that time. Although the Scherzo episode incorporated into the slow movement is also an innovation first encountered in Rubinstein's fourth concerto, Tchaikovsky functioned here as an intermediary. Furthermore, Rachmaninov had also used this formal device in his own second concerto. Apart from this Scherzo episode, the movement is completely independent, as is the finale which introduces several reminiscences of the first movement and quotes not only its main theme but also - unique in the history of the piano concerto - the cadenza as well, which it uses in a variation as a transition to the coda.
Rachmaninov composed his Piano Concerto No. 3 for his first U.S. tour and gave its world premiere in New York on 28 November 1909. At a subsequent performance at the same venue on 16 January 1910, he played under the direction of Gustav Mahler - certainly one of the glorious moments in music history.