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CD Review

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Piano Concerti & Paganini Rhapsody

  • Piano Concerto #1 in F Sharp minor, Op. 1
  • Piano Concerto #2 in C minor, Op. 18
  • Piano Concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30
  • Piano Concerto #4 in G minor, Op. 40
  • Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Earl Wild, piano
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
Chandos CHAN7114 67:46 + 65:45
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Wow.

The standard line on Rachmaninoff runs that as he grew older, his inspiration burned ever more fitfully. That has always struck me as a rather sentimental and naïve take on things. For me, the most significant fact about Rachmaninoff's composing career is that his concert career interrupted it. The Russian Revolution forced him to earn a living. He couldn't support his family at its accustomed level by his compositions. The living he chose took up huge blocks of time that could have gone to composition, and the one prosaic thing an artist really needs in order to create is time. Rachmaninoff wrote his first three concerti in Russia, the last two (I consider the Rhapsody a concerto) in exile. The first concerto, although extremely polished and by no means routine, still impresses me as the weakest of the five, the third the best written. However, while I admire the third, I love the second and fourth, and the Rhapsody I find the most inspired.

The Rachmaninoff second (with Richter and Sanderling) was the first LP I bought with my own money, so I have a sentimental attachment. I still remember browsing through the record bins with a more knowledgeable junior-high-school friend and asking him, "Is this any good?" He could have said a lot of things, including "Dummy!" but he settled for a tactful "I think you'll like it." I did indeed. I wore that LP out, to the extent where the grooves smoothed out to the slickness of a marble floor, and any music they still held was obscured by a thick curtain of hiss and crackle.

Another frequent critical bromide against Rachmaninoff is that he simply followed Tchaikovsky; he brought that style to a certain height and contributed little of his own. I've never understood this one. To me, both composers at their best sound like nobody but themselves. Tchaikovsky's melodic gift to me ranges more widely than Rachmaninoff's and owes less to previous figures like Chopin. Rachmaninoff owes a tremendous debt to Chopin, particularly in matters of phrasing, and to the chant of the Russian Orthodox Church (the model for his more "Russian" themes, whatever the tempo). But Rachmaninoff's music rambles less, and furthermore it changes as the composer goes along, moving from Romantic to a tentative Modernism in such works as the fourth piano concerto and the Symphonic Dances. In this sense, he walks a path similar to Puccini's, incorporating new approaches to extend that already essentially his. Certainly, the works here show these changes, as the composer picks up more experience, both in writing and in hearing music.

Rachmaninoff composed his first concerto when he was 18 but, before your jaw drops in amazement, he revised it substantially at 44. People usually play the revision, as they do here. Still, it's a remarkable work and manages to retain its youth. It takes from many previous concerto staples – a little from the Tchaikovsky first, the Liszt first, a snippet of the Schumann – but it does so with incredible assurance and without the mish-mosh of pastiche. The opening fanfare, bringing to mind the one in the Tchaikovsky fourth symphony, strikes the same rhetorical note, if not the exact same musical ones. The first lyrical idea lies very close to the main theme of Tchaikovsky's Manfred, and you find musical ideas, so close as to count as kin, to round off the first subject group here as in the Tchaikovsky. But you've only to compare Rachmaninoff's maiden concerto to something like the Rubinstein concerti to hear the clarity of the ideas, the musical thought expressed directly, without any sort of groping or stuck-on fuzz. Furthermore, it's not just second-hand news. An individual with a strong artistic profile talks to us, despite all the borrows. This probably comes down to a matter of feeling, more than any identifiable technique. As for me, I hear a kind of rhythmic vigor, like a stamping of heavy boots, in all the concerti that mark each work as Rachmaninoff's. Also, the piano writing is superb, not always so with Rachmaninoff, probably because of his stupendous keyboard technique. The sonatas, for example, suffer from thick textures arising from the composer's desire to occupy every finger all the time. The concerto has plenty of power, especially with Wild at the keyboard, but the textures always tell. My favorite movement, however, is probably the second, with a gorgeous melody, fully the equal of any in the later concerti. It represents a real risk, in that it threatens to degenerate into mere noodling. Yet it never sinks, and it retains the air of having been made up on the spot.

The second concerto blows away the derivative dust of the first. Rachmaninoff not only has found his characteristic voice, he proclaims it. Considering its genesis in the composer's creative and emotional breakdown, one hears no hesitance in it at all. It has become in my mind the archetypal Romantic piano concerto. As I say, I heard Richter first, and I've never heard him bettered. Most other pianists come across as prettier or wimpier, with the notable exception of Rachmaninoff himself. I might as well confess to my emotional superficiality: the opening makes or breaks the work for me. Richter starts at some dynamic just this side of audibility and builds such tension that the opening breaks out like a mighty torrent punching through a dam. The themes throughout the concerto are memorable, every single one of them, and it all sounds like one gigantic song. Nevertheless, one hears all sorts of nasty remarks lobbed in its direction, as if Rachmaninoff has scammed the innocent music lover, who doesn't understand the Higher Aspects of Art anyway. It's kind of a Rodney Dangerfield of concertos. Having tried myself, I can attest that writing tunes of such eloquence isn't as easy as it may appear. If it were, Rachmaninoff would have undoubtedly written more of them. Nevertheless, for the musically pure who condescend to Rachmaninoff at all, it's the third concerto that gets the respect. If the recordings provide any evidence, the third movement seems the hardest to bring off. Getting the opening march tempo is first problem. I usually prefer something very deliberate, which picks up speed as it goes along. In this concerto, the more weight, the more deliberation, the better. Horenstein and Wild do something very interesting (for all I know, it may even be in the score, although I've not heard this in any other interpretation). They begin, for me, a bit light, but take on greater weight and anxiety as they go. It has the interesting effect of finding something of the unfamiliar in what you may have begun to take for granted, and the stratagem refocuses you with a snap.

One year after the première (1909, New York Symphony Society, under Damrosch), Rachmaninoff played the third with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Mahler. Mahler praised it – praise which Rachmaninoff cherished to the end of his days. Most writers consider this Rachmaninoff's best work, mainly because he creates an entire concerto out of very few ideas which appear in at least two of the three movements. That's not the only reason, of course, but it's the one that keeps coming up. To me, it's full of good things, like a stuffed Christmas stocking. But, for me, it doesn't soar as high as the second. I think the tunes not quite as distinguished, although at that level, I'm probably niggling. I admire the orchestration as well, something that Rachmaninoff doesn't get enough credit for. He's a genius orchestrator, who also happens to be not only capable but surprising. I also like the asymmetry of the music. I'm not always sure when a phrase will stop, or how. You have your choice of just about every virtuoso who ever recorded for this concerto, and I own several accounts: Horowitz (1951), Rachmaninoff on RCA, Weissenberg with Prêtre, Janis and Munch, as well as this one.

The fourth piano concerto, like the first, is hardly talked about, except in terms of failure. John Culshaw, in his pioneering, illuminating essay on Rachmaninoff and Medtner, slams the fourth as unconvincingly "cheerful," a trait I wouldn't have ascribed to the concerto if I'd lived to a ripe old age. I sink my credibility and say that, for me, it's a great work, as are all the Rachmaninoff concerti. Again, it interests me as an example of Rachmaninoff's modernist extensions of his late-Romantic idiom. Emotionally, as Culshaw demonstrates, it's not as straightforward as the other four. A grotesque vein runs through Rachmaninoff's music, and he gives it full rein here. Unlike the second and third, the fourth is neither heroic nor epic. It's a concerto of worry, nerves, and trouble. Rachmaninoff doesn't bother to assume the mantle of bard here, but speaks in a voice closer to his own character. The opening tries to bound out like a conqueror and never makes it, due to the neurotic chattering of the trumpets. In the second movement, a melody dazedly wanders trying to find harmonic stability and never does. The finale comes off as a brilliant phantasmagoria, with the orchestration especially inventive. Again, the music looks for a place to rest without luck, even trying to begin the whole concerto all over again. One hears adumbrations of the Rhapsody and the Symphonic Dances, but the music comes across as more raw. It turns out, if you listen to this work for several days, that Rachmaninoff has organized this work almost as thoroughly as the third concerto. Again, he takes from the same small bag of ideas for the entire concerto. The second, lyrical subject of the first movement derives from the main subject. Subsidiary ideas from the first movement show up in the second and third. Such is Rachmaninoff's invention, however, that it's hard to catch him at it, except where he gives you obvious hints in the finale.

I suspect that when most listeners think of Paganini's theme, they think of Rachmaninoff's rhapsody. At the time Rachmaninoff wrote, he competed with variations on the same theme by Liszt, Schumann, and Brahms. All three of those works, despite their considerable interest, are regarded as curiosities, more or less, while Rachmaninoff's has undoubtedly become standard rep. It may not run as deep as the Goldbergs, but, on the other hand, the Goldbergs aren't white-hot. For me, the Rhapsody counts as fever-music. The contrasts among the heroic, the grotesque, and the lyric elements of Rachmaninoff's language in general concentrate here. It almost takes advantage of the poor listener, so sure is the composer's sense of concerto theater. Of course, it's not a rhapsody at all, but a highly organized set of variations: twenty-four, to be exact, divided by tonal centers into four large sections. It's chock full of jokes, sometimes in-jokes. It even begins with one: the first variation precedes the statement of the theme – a picking out of the harmonic bass, just as Beethoven does in his Eroica finale. One encounters throughout a kind of musical punning. The theme turns out to connect with the Dies irae chant. The sectioning-by-tonality doesn't necessarily coincide with the rhetorical structure. Transitions between variations and tonality is often by thirds and sometimes by tritone – the latter known as "the devil in music," perhaps another reference to the Dies irae. The piano writing can stop your heart, if you're not careful. It's novel and almost cruelly effective. The orchestration is again brilliant, with particularly effective use of trumpets, pizzicato, string moto perpetuo, harp, and glockenspiel. It reminds me of those eccentrically brilliant Russians during the last gasp of the tsars – the amateur mathematicians who kept in their desk drawers solutions to problems that stumped professionals all over the rest of the world, the cataloguers like Slonimsky who compiled a Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, the composers like Scriabin and Stravinsky out to re-invent music, the painters like Kandinsky who wished to free themselves from the physical world, the writers like Nabokov and Tsvetayeva who created highly detailed, absurd fictive worlds. There's that kind of jittery electricity about the work – high spirits of a high order – and then, of course, the genius tune, which turns out to be something like an inverse retrograde of the thematic trill. Wow, indeed.

Although you can find individual performances as good or better than some of the ones here, this and Rachmaninoff (minus the Rhapsody, available on Naxos) playing his own rank as my top two choices for the complete set. Wild and Horenstein replace Ashkenazy and Previn's very fine accounts for a modern set. One doesn't normally associate Horenstein with the flash of Rachmaninoff, but he and the Royal Phil strike sparks. Wild, of course, plays this stuff like a natural.

As opposed to the lightweight reading one normally gets, the first concerto comes off with surprising heft. Maybe people, including me, have underestimated this work all along. The second concerto misses Richter's storms and lowering skies in the first movement, but Wild and Horenstein's final movement blazes, with details of orchestration one normally passes over not only clear, but emotionally telling. The fugato really snaps your head back. I've always been a fan of Janis in the third. Wild I think as good, but he follows the composer's cuts. With the current penchant for the Complete Everything (a penchant I share), it may put some listeners off. I do think in this case, the cuts strengthen the architecture of the work, but on the other hand I miss some great passages, particularly in the cadenzas. Still, the collaboration between Wild and Horenstein stands out. With them, the concerto moves from the virtuoso star turn to distinguished collaboration. They make room for one another, they breathe together, they think as one. "Breath" and "breadth" might be the watchwords for this performance. As good as Wild is, Horenstein matches him with the orchestra. One gets much less choice with the fourth. This fourth concerto performance is simply the best I've heard, with both soloist and conductor biting into each phrase with relish, as well as with great understanding. Horenstein, in particular, strikes the right emotional bells throughout. With such a fourth, you would expect a great Rhapsody. You get it. Fleisher and Szell also present a great Rhapsody, but it's mono, and Wild and Horenstein have the same virtues – mainly, that they take the work seriously, as more than a swooner and dazzler. It's like watching a high-power line sparking. I particularly appreciate the lack of dawdle and moonshine in the 18th variation. Horenstein and Wild take it just this side of prosaic, so that when they indulge in their (rather chaste) rubati, it hits with all the more punch.

The sound is gorgeous. Chandos has transferred performances originally made for a Reader's Digest "club," which I never heard, so I have no idea what the originals were like. On these CDs, you hear everything. Detail normally lost in a miasma of orchestral comes through almost like a slap in the face, simply because I never knew it was there. For me, this is the great stereo set.

Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz