Symphoria is committed to trying new things while still bringing you the mainstays of the repertoire—and this weekend, we fulfill both aims, honoring a beloved composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), with a festival of back-to-back concerts (something we’ve never done before) that deepen appreciation of his output.
Each concert begins with an appetizer. Friday’s opener is a rarity, one of his earliest works, the fleet-footed, lightly scored Scherzo in D minor (1888). It seems modelled on the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream—a work for which Rachmaninoff had an abiding affection (he made a piano transcription in 1933). Saturday’s concert, in contrast, begins with one of Rachmaninoff’s most enduring works—the haunting Vocalise (1915). A vocalise is a song without words, and this one originally rounded out a collection of linguistically rich settings of Russia’s greatest poets. A suggestion that music can take us to a realm beyond the power of words? Perhaps. In any case, Rachmaninoff adapted it for voice and orchestra and for orchestra alone (the version we’re hearing)—and it’s since been arranged for virtually every instrument around.
The meat of the festival, though, consists of Rachmaninoff’s four piano concertos. This set of works has a curious status. On the one hand, it’s the premiere romantic piano concerto cycle after Beethoven’s, both the most popular and the most consistently high in quality—at least if we consider the term “cycle” to mean more than the one or two concertos penned by composers like Grieg and Liszt. On the other hand, its fame rests largely on the two concertos in the center; the First and Fourth are less familiar. One goal of the festival is to redress that imbalance by showing how well the two outliers hold up.
But there are three other goals as well. One is to celebrate the sheer quality of Rachmaninoff’s output. Although he has always been popular with listeners, he was for many years, like his idol Tchaikovsky, disdained by critics, especially those caught up in the modernist dogmas that Rachmaninoff resisted. It was also often assumed that because his music is so immediate in its emotional appeal, it must be cheap. It’s only recently that the depth and consistency of the craft of his music has been appreciated, and that critics have come to recognize that his romantic effusion is tied to a perfectionism few others can match.
Then, too, we hope that this weekend will give you a renewed appreciation of the range of his work. Even some of his most ardent admirers circulate the cliché that his music all sounds alike. Not so, said tonight’s soloist Natasha Paremsky when we talked last July: “The fun part about this cycle is that you’re actually experiencing all these different sides of this composer. There are so many flavors and so many experiences.”
As for the final goal: for all his meticulousness, Rachmaninoff was a virtuoso pianist; many would say he was the greatest who ever made recordings. There’s also, therefore, an acrobatic side to his art as well. The Third has often been called “the Everest of piano concertos”—but in fact, any of his concertos offers a chance for a pianist to show off her technique, and performing all four in a weekend, if not unprecedented, is a courageous feat. Natasha is nothing if not courageous: when she was invited, by text, to take on this challenge, it took her about 40 seconds to accept—even though that meant committing herself to learning the Fourth, which she had never performed before. “I have been wanting to do this for such a long time, because Rachmaninoff is so special to me.”
The Piano Concerto No. 1, originally composed in 1891 when the composer was still in his teens, is a fledgling piece—sufficiently so that Rachmaninoff revised it substantially in 1917 (that’s the version we’ll be hearing on Friday). “I feel,” says Natasha, “like the First is by a young man who is influenced by Grieg and his surroundings, like Glazunov, Anton Rubinstein, and Tchaikovsky. It’s innocent in so many ways.” And yet (especially in the revised version), “it does echo what is to come in the Fourth. There’s a lot of jazz in the second and third movements.” One notable feature is the huge first movement cadenza—an obvious opportunity for display that the composer was giving to himself as a pianist.
The Piano Concerto No. 2, from 1901, is radically different in both style and meaning. It came in the wake of a crushing experience. In 1897, Glazunov conducted the premiere of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony—and the performance was a disaster, puzzling the audience and drawing contempt from the critics. Was Glazunov drunk at the time? Was the music too original? In any case, Rachmaninoff, in what Natasha calls “a deep depression,” withdrew the piece (it was fortuitously rediscovered years later) and virtually abandoned composition in favor of conducting and piano playing. Fortunately, meetings with hypno-therapist Nikolai Dahl lifted his gloom and convinced him to take up the pen again. One immediate consequence was the Second Concerto, dedicated to Dahl.
It’s therefore what Natasha calls “a survival piece,” one that announces, “I survived a really horrific time and I came out of it.” Indeed, it expresses not only survival, but self-confidence, too. “It’s almost like a middle finger” to the establishment, in which Rachmaninoff says, “‘I’m absolutely a great composer, you know! No ifs, ands or buts.’” It’s also one of those rare works that has been consistently popular from its premiere. In part, that’s because of its rich harmonies. In part, that’s because of luscious, singable melodies that took on a life as pop songs (Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” was a recasting of Rachmaninoff’s second movement and “Full Moon and Empty Eyes,” popularized by Frank Sinatra, was drawn from the third). In part, that’s because of the assurance of the piano and orchestral writing. In any case, says Natasha, works like the Grieg “go in and out of style; Rach II never goes out of style.”
For Natasha, the Second is the greatest in the cycle, “the crown jewel.” And although she’s played it often, it remains consistently new. “The more experience I have in life, the more I see life experience reflected in the expressive genius of the Second, and the more I can connect to it in a fresh way.”
Even so, she actually likes the Piano Concerto No. 3 even more. Written in Dresden and first presented in New York (Mahler conducted the second performance), it’s now as popular as the Second; but it moved more slowly into the repertoire. For decades, only a few pianists would dream of programming it; even its dedicatee Josef Hofmann, one of the few competitors to Rachmaninoff’s status as the greatest pianist alive, never performed it. Why? Technically, Natasha says, it’s “the most difficult concerto in the repertoire. It’s Rachmaninoff saying ‘Check this out. Nobody’s ever done this before!’” As a result, while it’s her favorite, it’s got “a sprinkle of fear on top. That’s okay. It’s all right to be trepidatious in the face of genius. It keeps you humble.” Rachmaninoff wrote two different cadenzas: Natasha, not surprisingly. will play the larger of the two.
For all its difficulty, the Third has other important qualities as well. Compared to the Second, says Natasha, it “comes from a completely different place. It’s jazzier, more improvisatory, and denser, yet it’s based in a tighter kernel. He takes these leitmotifs and expands on them in an unbelievable way. It’s also crazier, a mind labyrinth. Your brain is just like ‘wow’! In its treatment of the inner notes, it’s like a Bach concerto on steroids. It breaks all the boundaries of what’s possible in expression on the piano.”
The 1926 Piano Concerto No. 4 is, again, something completely different. If the First is marked by innocence, the Second by survival, and the Third by boundary-breaking, the Fourth—the only one written after Rachmaninoff’s emigration to America—is influenced, far more than the Third, by New York jazz. The interest in virtuosity that marked the Third has been muted, and something more typically American has taken its place.
Natasha elaborates on the differences: “The Third is like body-building, high intensity integral training, and weight-lifting all combined into one explosive package, complete with harmonic modulations that will make anybody’s head spin. Rach IV is not quite the same pianistic challenge, the same flexing the biceps. Still, there’s a lot of harmonic modulation that makes many pianists shy away. It’s got very complicated, non-stop sequences.” She describes the style with an appropriately New York City metaphor: “We’re going from 90th and Amsterdam to 100th and Amsterdam, but we’re going to take a plane and go to New Zealand and Singapore, and still end up at 100th and Amsterdam. He could’ve just gotten us there in a straight line, but he goes through several different countries and cultures to get ten blocks. It’s almost comical.”
Comical? Stravinsky once described Rachmaninoff as a “six-and-a-half-foot scowl,” but you wouldn’t think so listening to the Fourth, Rachmaninoff’s wittiest concerto. As with the First, Rachmaninoff had second thoughts, revising it several times. Again, we’ll be hearing the composer’s final version.
For Natasha, this weekend is a major event. “Rachmaninoff got me through some dark times. I feel we’re friends. I feel honored to be able to do this.” She’s especially pleased to be working with conductor Larry Loh. As Larry points out, the Rachmaninoff Concertos have a complex integration of soloist and orchestra—it’s an immersive experience, not simply a case of having the piano “out in front” with the orchestra as a backdrop. And for Natasha, Larry is “the best person I could ever think of” for this kind of interaction. “Every time I walk on stage with Larry, I feel at ease. I have my friend right there, who can do whatever, and we play off each other. It’s super easy, and fun.”
We hope it will be a major event—and fun—for you, too.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have comments or questions? Contact me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org