July 9, 2023: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4 & Symphonic Dances

May 23, 2023

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Igor Stravinsky’s quip that Sergei Rachmaninoff “was a six-and-a-half-foot scowl” served to cement his image as a dour, taciturn spirit. But behind the statuesque bearing, severe crewcut, and somber eyes was a strain of sly wit and mischief. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a salute to the flamboyant, 19th-century violin virtuoso.

Composed amid the splendid isolation of Rachmaninoff’s Swiss villa in the summer of 1934, the Paganini Rhapsody is a set of 24 variations, framed by an introduction and coda, on Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. The variation format offered a taut scaffolding for Rachmaninoff, who often wrestled with large-scale forms. The score “embodies his late style at its brilliant and witty best,” writes historian Michael Steinberg, “it has one of the world’s irresistible melodies, and it gives audiences the satisfaction of watching a pianist work very hard and with obviously rewarding results.” The November 1934 premiere, by Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra and Rachmaninoff as soloist, was received with delight.

After a brief introduction (“listen up!”), the Paganini theme is stated, first in a “pointillistic” manner, and then, in full, by the unison violins. Variations 2-6 unpack the melody in its initial tempo and mood, while steadily building in excitement. Variation 7 introduces the ancient Dies irae motif from the Mass for the Dead — a reference to the claim that Paganini sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his extraordinary technique. The motif returns in later variations alongside Paganini’s theme. The violinist’s romantic escapades are also explored, starting in the waltz-like Variation 12.

In Variation 18, the tempo slows and Rachmaninoff unleashes a songful outpouring reminiscent of his earlier works; the melody is an inversion — an “upside-down” presentation — of the Paganini theme. “This one,” Rachmaninoff noted, “is for my agent.” The urbane vigor of the opening is quickly restored and the variations grow increasingly brilliant, the Dies irae again tolling alongside fragments of the Paganini theme. The piece ends with an impish whisper.

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, Op. 40

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

If there’s a piece of Rachmaninoff’s that stands to benefit from a 150th anniversary reappraisal, it may be the Piano Concerto No. 4. The March 1927 premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Leopold Stokowski conducting and Rachmaninoff as soloist, was met with disappointing reviews. Yet the composer faced an almost impossible task: His previous two concertos were bona fide hits, and the Fourth would be his first significant piece since emigrating to the United States nearly a decade earlier. Now one of the concert world’s biggest box office attractions, the mighty Rachmaninoff was due for a fall.

According to surviving sketches and a contemporary press report, Rachmaninoff began work on the Fourth Concerto as early as 1914, but it was after the premiere that he really sweated over the details. He fretted over the orchestration and length, writing sarcastically that “it will probably be performed like Wagner’s Ring cycle, over the course of several consecutive evenings.” (It was, in fact, shorter than his previous two concertos.) Rachmaninoff trimmed 114 measures from the first published edition of 1928, but remained dissatisfied and condensed it by another 78 measures in in 1941, two years before his death.

The Fourth contains many of Rachmaninoff’s signature gestures, all subtly updated with a roaring twenties sensibility. The composer was, like many contemporaries, swept up in the jazz craze, and in 1924 he attended the premiere of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. Unlike the hushed openings of his previous two concertos, this one starts with a bold and ravishing theme. Sparkling syncopations dot the first movement but the jazz parallels grow more pronounced in the “Largo” second movement, a kind of moody blues ballad delivered with a Russian accent. The kaleidoscopic finale brings Gershwin-esque piano runs and glittering embellishments.

Why the Fourth Piano Concerto failed to gain greater traction is hard to say. Perhaps early listeners, prepared for another outpouring of Russian angst, simply failed to grasp its expressive complexities, filtered through the experiences of exile and displacement.

Symphonic Dances

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

It would be easy to peg Rachmaninoff’s final composition, the Symphonic Dances, as a retrospective work, primarily obsessed with a lost Russia and the dislocation of exile. Indeed, those sentiments seem to animate its moodier passages. But the three-movement score also has a vital urgency that speaks to its origins. Rachmaninoff began the Symphonic Dances in the summer of 1940 while living in a rented estate on New York’s Long Island. He was age 67 and in poor health; despite grueling, round-the-clock preparations for an upcoming concert tour, he couldn’t resist the urge to compose, and produced most of the dances that summer.

A piano preview for his neighbor, Russian choreographer Michel Fokine, was met with enthusiasm. The premiere in January 1941, by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, was also well received, but a subsequent performance in New York was panned. Breaking with recent tradition, Ormandy declined to record the work. Rachmaninoff died believing that it was largely a failure.

Yet the Symphonic Dances has been increasingly embraced by musicians and audiences, especially in the last 25 years. Considering Rachmaninoff’s legacy in a 2022 New Yorker essay, music critic Alex Ross described the dances, along with the Third Symphony, as “among his finest, most disciplined creations,” with both containing “a cosmopolitan veneer and a sly, ironic tone.” The first of the dances is a swaggering, slightly sinister march with a central passage dominated by a wondrously soulful saxophone melody. A reference to his First Symphony — a troubled product of his creative youth — ends the movement.

The second movement is a languorous, ghostly waltz that accelerates in a mood of mounting anxiety. In the finale, Rachmaninoff introduces several quotations — a Russian Orthodox chant, the Dies irae and part of his All-Night Vigil from 1915 — whose precise purpose is unclear but which surely carried a personal meaning. The composer originally labeled the three movements “Noon,” “Twilight,” and “Midnight,” but ultimately cut the programmatic references. “I don’t know how it happened,” he later remarked. “It must have been my last spark.”


Program notes by Brian Wise

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