Thursday, September 15, 2011

First Concert - Rachmaninoff's First

Daria Rabotkina, who played the Schumann Piano Concerto last year, returns to play Rachmaninoff with Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony at the first concert of the new season, Saturday September 24th at 8pm and Sunday September 25th at 3pm. The program opens with Franz Liszt's 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody and concludes with Prokofiev's triumphant war-time 5th Symphony.

But instead of the more familiar Rach2 or Rach3 as his two famous concertos are affectionately known, she's playing Rach1.

If Rachmaninoff hadn’t written his 2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos, this concerto would be played a lot more often. Of course, if he hadn’t written the 2nd and 3rd, the world would be a much poorer place, since they’re two of the most popular concertos around, full of beautiful melodies and daunting challenges for the soloist. It often happens that a youthful work shows promise that is then overshadowed by mature realization.

Sure, it's his Opus 1 - how early is that? - but he also revised it 25 years later and that's what everybody hears today: the reflections of a 44-year-old artist looking back on a piece written when he was 19.

And at 19, Rachmaninoff had a lot going for him. A brilliant student, he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory that May in a class that included Alexander Scriabin. He shared the Gold Medal in piano performance with Josef Lhévinne (originally Levin, but once his career began in Europe and the United States, he Westernized the spelling to match the Russian pronunciation – Lhévinne would go on to become one the of century’s leading pianists and teachers, teaching at Juilliard until his death in 1944, a year after Rachmaninoff’s). Scriabin won the “Little Gold Medal” that year but did not complete his composition degree because of disagreements with his teacher, Anton Arensky.

Rachmaninoff had written other works that year – a one-act opera, Aleko, which won the Grand Prize in Composition at his graduation; the Trio elegiaque No. 1 (often associated with Tchaikovsky’s death but that event happened the following year and inspired a second, less well known trio elegiaque) and a little thing called the Prelude in C-sharp Minor whose popularity would haunt him the rest of his life.

There had been an earlier concerto – in the key of C Minor (the same key as his famous 2nd Concerto) – begun but abandoned a few years earlier. It would not be unusual for a young pianist dreaming of a concert career (and he had been studying to realize that dream since he was 9 years old) to write a concerto for himself. And when young students began major works like this, the usual advice is to model it after something you like, something recognized as a good example. The next year, he wrote to a cousin he was working on a new concerto (the first two movements already composed, the third not yet written down) and this eventually became his first published work.

While I hear echoes of Franz Liszt’s 1st Piano Concerto in Rachmaninoff’s Opus 1, his actual model was the Grieg A Minor Concerto (at least its two outer movements) which he heard Alexander Siloti (seen on the left, here, with the composer, photographed in 1892 or so) practicing during visits to the Rachmaninoffs in 1890. Rachmaninoff was the soloist when the first movement was performed at the Conservatory in March of 1892 (a couple of weeks before his 19th birthday) but he dedicated it to Siloti who would play the whole concerto frequently. The composer himself apparently never played the concerto again, which may seem odd.

Odder still was that he’d wait 25 years before revising it.

The usual argument to explain why so few pianists perform this concerto dismisses it as a youthful work that doesn’t stand up to the later, more mature concertos. That may be, but when he revised it in 1917, he corrected some of these “youthful indiscretions” in terms of its form and harmony, thinning out a lot of the texture and replacing some “filler” with more compelling material. He also replaced the original opening of the finale which gets things off to a much more exciting start (aaaaaand they’re off!)

Yet he kept the best features of the early work, perhaps lacking in the Great Themes that the later two concertos have, but still full of vitality and spontaneity. So in that sense, the work is both a young work and a mature one – or at least a mature look back on a youthful one. Even then, though, it never became popular with audiences.

As he wrote to a friend, "I have rewritten my First Concerto; it is really good now. All the youthful freshness is there, and yet it plays itself so much more easily. And nobody pays any attention. When I tell them in America that I will play the First Concerto, they do not protest, but I can see by their faces that they would prefer the Second or Third."

Ironically, Rachmaninoff emigrated from Russia following the two revolutions in 1917, driving across the border into Finland in a horse-drawn sleigh in the dark of a winter’s night, carrying with him only a handful of scores and notebooks, having lost his family’s estate and his wealth not to mention the whole lifestyle and culture that defined him as a Russian now that Russia no longer existed.

His first published work, written mostly when he was 18, also in a sense became one of his last. Because he needed to make a living and being a concert pianist was more lucrative in the short-term, he now had no time to compose. Cut off from the Russian world that nurtured his soul, he also found it difficult to be creative when he did have the time.

Once he’d finally settled in America and built a house, it was a re-make of Russia where everything was furnished like a Russian home, where they spoke only Russian, ate Russian food and observed Russian customs. However, even this failed to spark his creativity.

Of the six works he completed after 1917, there was a 4th Piano Concerto written in 1926 that also suffers by comparison to the 2nd & 3rd, though the world could not get enough of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, composed eight years later. There was a 3rd Symphony that never went over as well as the 2nd and his final work, the Symphonic Dances, also failed to please American audiences and prompted Rachmaninoff to tell Eugene Ormandy that, basically, he would never compose again.

Aside from the choral songs of Op. 42, the Corelli Variations for solo piano round out the original works he composed in the last 25 years of his life. The rest were small-scale transcriptions that became staples of his recital repertoire, many of them more like encores – including his take on some movements from Bach’s E Major Partita for solo violin which received its “world premiere” in the Forum in Harrisburg as part of a concert tour in the 1930s.

But still, everywhere he played, audiences clamored for the Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, written the same year he finished his 1st Piano Concerto.

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