04 February 2009

Getting to Know Sergei Vasilyevich

Rakhmaninov composed his Third Concerto as an impressive vehicle for his tour of America. He composed the piece in the tranquillity of the family estate at Ivanovka, finishing the score on 23 September O.S. (6 October N.S.) 1909. He dedicated the work to Joseph Hoffman, though it turned out that Hoffman would never perform the piece.

Rakhmaninov played the premiere of the Third Concerto on 28 November 1909 with the Symphony Society of New York conducted by Walter Damrosch, at the New Theatre, New York. (His American debut, however, was a recital of solo works in Northampton, Massachusetts, on 4 Nov 09) On 16 January 1910, he played it again, at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Gustav Mahler. On this tour, he also conducted his Second Symphony, and the tone-poem The Isle of the Dead. In the course of the tour, he was invited to become permanent conductor of the Boston Symphony, but declined, returning to Russia in February 1910. On 4 April 1910 he gave the concerto its Russian premiere, with the Moscow Philharmonic conducted by Evgeny Plotnikov.

The Russian audience and critics received the new work rather more warmly than their American counterparts; but European reaction generally was that the Concerto was more admirable as a performance exhibition-piece, than as composition. Nonetheless, the piece garnered enough popularity in the years immediately following, that even the notoriously impertinent Prokofiev was intimidated, and 'faced his fear' by matching it with his own Piano Concerto No. 2.

Rakhmaninov himself would wind up permitting (sometimes in consideration of the timing restraint of recording technology of the day) a total of six cuts in the score.

Vladimir Horowitz recorded the Concerto in 1930.

New York Sun, Nov 1909: "Sound reasonable music this, though not a great or memorable proclamation."

When preparing the Concerto with Gustav Mahler and the New York Philharmonic, Rakhmaninov said that Mahler "Devoted himself to the concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to the point of perfection, although he had already gone through another long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important — an attitude too rare among conductors. Though the rehearsal was scheduled to end at 12:30, we played and played far beyond this hour and when Mahler announced that the first movement would be rehearsed again, I expected some sort of protest from the musicians but I did not notice a single sign of annoyance. The orchestra played the first movement with a keen or perhaps even closer application than the previous time."

This time critical response was more positive. New York Herald: "The work grows in impressiveness upon acquaintance and will doubtless take rank among the most interesting piano concertos of recent years, although its great length and extreme difficulties bar it from performances by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers."

(Pagination throughout is the Boosey & Hawkes pocket edition HPS 18)

First Movement

I very much enjoy the games Rakhmaninov plays with sonata-design in the first movement. Also, there is a little bit of tongue-in-cheek, I think, in the fact that that the introductory figure (which plays a big role in the development) is something of an echo of the first theme from the first movement of the Second Concerto.

Also . . . consider how, since the Concerto (and especially as Rakhmaninov handles it) is something of a virtuoso's playing field, this first movement brings the soloist in with probably the least demanding technique imaginable: a simple melody in octaves. (I.e., meet the soloist, but all the fireworks are yet to come, where's the hurry?) Then, consider the beginning of this opening theme: for almost four complete measures, the melody turns upon itself within the narrowest intervalic compass which still allows movement — a diminished fourth (from F-natural to C-sharp, enharmonically equivalent to a major third). Then, apart from that eighth-note lower-neighbor of a B in the fourth bar of the tune, it stays within that diminished fourth for another two bars, so that then, when at the start of the seventh bar, the melody leaps up a fourth to the G . . . it feels a bit like Big Space.

This opening theme (and a goodly portion of the material in the movement is drawn from the three-note stepwise descent, and the immediately consequent three-note stepwise ascent) is so simple, yet well-wrought. After exploring this narrow intervalic space, the melody makes its chromatic way up to an arrival on B-flat (and a subito piano arrival, after a three-measure crescendo . . . and B-flat will be the key of the Subordinate Theme here in the Expo). Then, the melody concludes by telescoping its range back down, a sequence of scalar descents to the tonic [ B-flat > D :: A > D :: G > D :: . . . ]

And when this sequence (to use the term generally) brings us back to the range of the opening four bars, Rakhmaninov adds the E-flat to make it completely chromatic for the cadence [ F - E - E-flat - D - C# > D ]. And while the rhythm of the entire melody has been nicely organic and forward moving, that one bar of 2/4 is a very sweet metrical 'stretch'.

The First Theme area draws up to a ‘mini-cadenza’ which is a half-cadence in D Minor. Then the bassoons double the bassi (celli and contrabasses) in a variant on the First Theme, bringing in deliciously scored winds, and arriving at F, a half-cadence in B-flat, the key of the Second Theme. The arrival at B-flat is a charming passage; we don’t actually start with the Theme per se, but with an antiphonal game between first strings, then winds, and the soloist, on a figure which, first, was subtly introduced in the winds at figure [4] and, second, anticipates the opening of the Second Theme.

The Second Theme begins with a lower-neighbor figure (D - C - D) which permeates much of the later development nearly as much as the descent/ascent of the First Theme. The Exposition ends with a subtle restoration of the dotted Introduction.

The Development begins with a clear return to the beginning, and it just as clearly begins to go Elsewhere. Won’t go into detail about the Development, or I won’t know where to stop; but of course it culminates in the huge cadenza.

Why is the cadenza huge?

Rakhmaninov here manages an ingenious switch on Mozart. The classic Mozart model of the concerto springs from the convention of repeating the Exposition: there is first an orchestral (tutti) Exposition, and then a soloist Exposition. Rakhmaninov here writes, not a double Exposition, but something of a double Recap. In the middle of the cadenza, there is a clear return to the tonic, and a Solo Recap of the First Theme (and, actually, this Retransition and Recap are just what Rakhmaninov gives two versions of, with the two cadenze); solo winds subtly assist in the transition to E-flat, where there is a Solo Recap of the Second Theme. This winds up with Mozartean cadential trills, and then we ‘slip’ magically (I use this adverb advisedly) from E-flat to the tonic D Minor, and we have a Tutti Recap, a literal return to the start. A brief Coda winds the movement up, and the final cadence is soft and sweet.

Second Movement

The Intermezzo is combination of ternary form (A-B-A') and sonatina. There is no single set ‘method’ for reducing sonata down to sonatina, and Rakhmaninov manages to bring the concerto and the sonatina ideas together delightfully.

The contrasting B section is what I hear as the Scherzo, if the concerto were a symphony. (Of course, it is comparatively brief, by the clock . . . perhaps one full minute out of the movement.)

The key signature of the movement is A major; this makes it relate very clearly to the D Minor of the outer movements. But really, the key of the sonatina is D-flat major, a key ‘scandalously’ distant from D (but, the inverse to E-flat which is of such importance in the outer movements . . . it was the key for the Second Theme in the Recap of the First Movement, and will be the key at the start of the Recap in the Third). And even the key of the Scherzo middle section, is F# Minor.

The Intermezzo begins in that modal sort of A major, which feels like the dominant to D Minor; and in fact, the first note to sound, in the firsts, is D; and when the harmony is filled out on beat two of the first measure, the chord is D Minor.

After this one measure of introduction, the oboe carries the first phrase of the orchestral Expo. The characteristic gesture of this theme is a descending second, following by a descending third. In bar five, the oboe is doubled at the unison by the clarinet; the simplest touch, but brilliant . . . and in fact all the wind scoring in this movement is expert. After a string choir answer, there is a lush page in which there is a chain of the [desc. major second + desc. minor third] ending with something of a pitch-allusion to the First Theme of the first movement, I think, in the violins in the fourth bar of the Un poco più mosso (3b_1 p.3): F-natural, E, C-sharp. (Oops! The first horn plays a written C rather than B in that rising arpeggio in the first bar, in Rakhmaninov’s own recording!)

When the soloist comes in, he seems first to draw us to F-# Minor (which will be the key of the ‘B’ section); but the key we settle into is D-flat Major, and a maggiore version of the Theme. After a brief cadenza, the soloist takes us into B-flat Minor, and there’s a half-cadence on F.

Here is the awful cut in the Rakhmaninov recording, shearing off a return of the First Theme from the first movement. Then, further discourse on the Intermezzo theme.

The Scherzo passage introduces a brilliant sixteenth-note-triplet figure in the piano, which spins off from a transposition of the first movement’s First Theme: C# - E - D - C# - B - C# - D - C#. And the tune in the clarinet and bassoon for which this serves as accompaniment, is a slowed-down version of the same theme (3b_2 p.2). The key is F# Minor, so even as this passage ends on a half-cadential C#, it sets up a return to the Interemezzo theme in the orchestra, in a transposition from its Exposition, but in the ‘true key’ of the Intermezzo (D-flat = C#).

But . . . the concerto is in D Minor, how do we get back? When the soloist first entered in this movement, the key ‘slipped down’ a third from A to F#; and in parallel, here at the conclusion of the Intermezzo material, the key slips from C# to an A Dominant-Seventh harmony. Still, part of the harmonic footprint here is the half-tone relation . . . and there is a big crescendo in E-flat major, before the [ i 6/4 – V ] brings us attacca into the third movement.

(The writing of these thoughts was a little piecemeal over the course of a few days, and I want to emphasize that, notwithstanding this choppy presentation of a bunch of ideas which give probably a diffuse impression at best, my ear finds that the whole movement flows beautifully, simply, naturally.)

In short, Rakhmaninov is doing enough with this piece compositionally, that it isn't nearly as straightforward a 'charmer' as the Second Concerto, perhaps. And since it really is both a big piece (even with the five cuts, Rakhmaninov's recording of the Third runs a few minutes longer than the Second), and an 'elephantine' challenge for the soloist . . . maybe it is not every top-notch concertizing pianist who is going to be able to master this.

Third Movement

The third movement feels sonata-rondo-ish, but . . . the paired occurences of the A ritornello material in each of the Expo and Recap don't straddle the B theme:

[ Expo ]

rit.[1] :: p. 69
rit.[2] :: p. 73, marking [41]
B :: p. 78 (second system)

[ Recap ]

rit.[1a] :: p. 104
rit.[2] :: p. 114
B' :: p. 119 (last measure)

Also, the development develops, not the material of the third movement, but hearkens back to the second theme of the first movement. Charmingly, I think, Rakhmaninov uses a scherzando voice for the contrasting sections of both movements two and three . . . but in the second movement, the scherzo intrusion is a more rapid tempo; in the third, a relaxation of tempo. Both of them refer back to a theme from the first movement, though.

B is recapitulated with a different accompaniment and pace (marked Più vivo in the Recap, where the marking in the Expo had been Meno mosso).

After the rollicking 6/4 section (Vivace, p. 124) which (call me weird) reminds me just a shade of a section of the Shostakovich Fourth . . . the steeplechase accelerates into a brief cadenza, and then comes the full-bloom version of B. Study those pages, as a hundred Hollywood film-scorers have studied them before us . . . .

But the piece does not linger there forever, and picks the tempo back up, and pulls up to a neat halt.

There are, in the historic recording of the composer playing the Concerto accompanied by Ormandy & the Philadelphia Orchestra, five cuts (maybe I missed one while I was making note of these):

First Mvt

1. From Tempo precedente (p.19) to [11] (p.20)

2. The two bars of cadenza before the bar marked accelerando (p.38)

Second Mvt

3. From più vivo (p.51) to the measure before that marked a tempo, più mosso (p.53)

Third Mvt

4. From [45] (p.79) to Allegro molto (p.82)

5. From Meno mosso (p.91) to A tempo [54] (p.95)

You can sort of almost get away with the cuts in the first movement (although it is still musical loss); but the cuts in the second and third are arrant butchery. There's something I find horribly sad in these five cuts, 'documented' by the composer's own recording; they feel obviously wrong, and how he endured them is beyond me.

(Rakhmaninov here plays the scherzando cadenza.)


Cato said...

My favorite recording of the Rach Third Piano Concerto remains the Byron Janis/Charles Munch BSO recording on RCA. The cadenza is done perfectly!

What a concert that must have been: Mahler and Rakhmaninov on the same stage!

Karl Henning said...

Must have a listen to that 'un sometime!

Karl Henning said...

Hey! This post garnered the first Frightful vote (that I know of)!

Cato said...

Obviously that vote came from a Yale man!