Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto – April 24 & 25, 2020
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Sergey Rachmaninov grew up in a middle-class musical family, but under strained economic conditions. His father, a gambler and an alcoholic, squandered the family’s fortune to the point that eventually his mother and father separated, and she had to sell what remained of the family’s assets and move into a small apartment in St. Petersburg. Sergey – whose care in better times would have been entrusted to a nanny – consequently grew up with little supervision.
His schooling suffered as a result. Although he showed early promise as a pianist and obtained a scholarship to study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the administration threatened to expel him for failing to attend classes. He subsequently transferred to the Moscow Conservatory where his mentor, Nikolay Zverev, discouraged his initial attempts at composing. Nevertheless, Rachmaninov continued to march to his own drummer, defying his teacher and transferring to classes in counterpoint and composition.
Clearly, his sense of his own worth was more accurate than that of his professors. While still a student, he produced a string of successful works, including the tone poem Prince Rostislav, his First Piano Trio, and a flood songs and piano pieces. For his graduation in 1892 he composed the opera Aleko, which won him the highest distinction, the Great Gold Medal. The same year he also composed the Prelude in C-sharp minor, a work whose inordinate fame haunted him all his life because audiences always expected – and demanded – it as an encore at his performances as one of history’s greatest pianists.
By 1895 Rachmaninov felt confident enough to compose a symphony. The premiere took place in St. Petersburg in 1897 but was a dismal failure, in large part because to the shoddy conducting of Alexander Glazunov who was under “the influence.” Whereas earlier setbacks had produced in the young composer creative defiance, this disappointment brought on a severe depression. For three years he was unable to do any significant composing. After consulting numerous physicians and advisors, even asking old Leo Tolstoy for help, he finally went for therapy in 1900 to Dr. Nikolay Dahl, an internist who had studied hypnosis and rudimentary psychiatry in Paris. The result was one of the first well-known successes of modern psychotherapy. Although the composer was able to return to creative work, relapses into depression dogged him for the rest of his life. Significantly, all his large instrumental compositions are in minor keys, and one of the melodic themes recurring in many of his compositions is the Dies irae from the Catholic mass for the dead reminding mourners of the terrors of the day of judgment.
Rachmaninov expressed his gratitude to Dr. Dahl by dedicating the Second Piano Concerto to him. The first performance of the complete work, in November 1901with the composer at the piano, was an instant success. It is Rachmaninov’s most frequently performed and recorded orchestral work. It even found its way into Hollywood as background music to the World War II movie Brief Encounter.
The first movement opens with dark, plodding unaccompanied chords on the piano that increase in intensity and volume, gradually joined by the orchestra and leading to the first theme. The effect is like the tolling of the giant low-pitched bells common in Russian churches. The second broadly romantic theme is a Rachmaninov signature. The lyrical mood is sustained throughout until the coda with its sudden conclusion in a dramatic burst of energy.
In the Adagio sostenuto, muted strings, followed by the piano left hand hesitantly accompany the high woodwinds. The right hand then joins the woodwinds in dreamy interplay. After a brief energetic cadenza, the atmosphere of the beginning returns.
The beginning of the third movement in the lower range of the orchestra is deceptively gentle, enhancing the surprise of the sudden sparkling piano cadenza. The main theme, introduced by the violas and oboes, is intensely passionate – in the same vein as the second theme of the opening movement. After a surprisingly calm episode, the tempo increases to presto; and after another short cadenza the highest instruments in the orchestra take up the theme, culminating in a glittering climax.
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47
Volumes have been written about Dmitry Shostakovich and his ambivalent relationship with the Soviet regime. Much of this writing is based on after-the-fact statements whose authenticity and veracity is often questionable. What is clear is that the composer began as a true son of the Russian Revolution and, as teenager, a true believer. But in his late 20s he became caught up in the Stalinist nightmare.
Shostakovich’s roller coaster ride from Soviet adulation to denunciation began in January 1936 when an article appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda severely criticizing his successful new opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District. The result was that, upon the order of the government, the opera – as well as the rest of the composer’s music – was withdrawn from the stage and the concert hall. For the first of many times Shostakovich was cast into Soviet limbo, his music unperformed, his livelihood withdrawn and his life in jeopardy. In later years he recalled that he was so certain of being arrested that he would sleep with his suitcase packed near the front door so that if the secret police were to pick him up they would not disturb the rest of the family.
Shostakovich’s response was to go in two directions. Because of his fame both at home and abroad, the government was willing to give him the chance to earn a living composing music for propaganda films and politically correct spectacles. To satisfy his own creative energy, he composed works “for the drawer.” Some of his greatest and most personal works did not see the light of day until after Stalin’s death in 1953.
The Fifth Symphony was the composer’s attempt to rehabilitate himself as a serious artist in the eyes of the authorities after the Lady Macbeth debacle. How it did so is an example of how politicized art operates. The chromatic, dissonant Symphony was certainly not in line with the cultural commissars’ requirement for cheerful, uplifting music, and the wild audience enthusiasm at the 1937 premieres – both in Moscow and in Leningrad – made the Soviet bureaucracy suspicious. They were convinced that the enthusiastic reception had been organized by Shostakovich’s friends and colleagues; they grilled the conductors and musicians looking for evidence of a conspiracy. It took a special performance for the apparatchiks alone to finally convince them to give the work the official seal of approval.
The Symphony opens with a broad theme, a constant presence underlying a melancholy counter-theme in the upper strings. The composer slowly ratchets up the hushed tension, gradually adding other instruments, a calm before the storm. More than halfway through the movement, clouds appear on the horizon with the trombones blaring out the first string theme with an increase in tempo and dynamics until the shrieking violins introduce it as a violent march with full brass and snare drums. But the storm suddenly passes, and the movement concludes with a gentle glockenspiel solo.
The short Scherzo is a rhythmically lopsided waltz evoking everything from Viennese ballrooms to music boxes. Erratic shifts in dynamics suggest a kind of musical satire that emerged more overtly and with greater bitterness in the composer’s later works.
The Largo, opening with a gentle melody reminiscent of Bach, is a somber outpouring that probably best reflects the composer’s mood during those terrible years of personal and national turmoil –. Melancholy solos for flute and especially the oboe punctuate the long lament. As in the first movement, the tension slowly builds, until it reaches a climax beginning with a xylophone and violin theme accompanied by a loud tremolo in the rest of the strings.
The Finale is a military quick march, blaring in the approved “Socialist Realism” style. There are two principal themes, which both undergo significant transformations in mood, from strident militarism to pensive melancholy. The moments of shrieking ostinato passages in the violins and rising chromaticism, as well as the somber middle section belie the triumphal themes. It is as if Shostakovich is surveying his environment at the beginning of the movement, grimly pondering it in the slow middle section and, in the final measures, fatalistically accepting it. Later, he put an unflattering interpretation on this movement, equating it with a forced march, the coerced and highly organized Soviet “spontaneous outpouring” in mass demonstrations.
For the following ten years Shostakovich was able to compose relatively undisturbed. But in 1948 the official axe fell again; it was only with Stalin’s death in 1953 and the subsequent temporary cultural thaw that his music was heard again and his “good name” restored in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Shostakovich’s periodic bending to the official Soviet will did not sit well with the academic serialist composers of the West, who denigrated his work until a parallel “cultural thaw” in the West relaxed the stranglehold of rigid atonal music.
Program notes by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn