If music would have a taste, the “Trio élégiaque No. 1”, composed by the Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov, would taste like black chocolate. Bittersweet. Melting on your tongue and exploding in a firework of sensations.
Rachmaninov, one of the last great representatives of romanticism, wrote it in 1892 at the age of 19 and it shows the influence of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, his paragon and mentor. It’s first public performance was also Rachmaninov’s first independent concert as a solo pianist. At the time, he was a musical student at the Moscow conservatory. An excellent version is available on a recording by Lang Lang (piano), Vadim Repin (violin) and Mischa Maisky (cello) on Spotify. I become very emotional each time I hear the piece, not only because of its deeply melancholic tone, but also because of its structural beauty.
Another wonderful piece by Rachmaninov – with more joy and verve – is the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 34”, a piece for piano and orchestra, consisting of a set of variations of Niccolo Paganini’s “Caprice for Violin No. 24” performed without a break. On Spotify, you will find a recording with the pianist Van Cliburn and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The record that I prefer features Howard Shelley at the piano while Bryden Thomson conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Pay attention to the piano solo around the 16th minute of playing. The theme is taken up by the strings a minute later and if there ever was a set of florid notes, than it is this part. Brilliant, really!
Rachmaninov composed the “Rhapsody” in 1934 at the age of 61 during a stay in Switzerland. He had fled Russia in 1917 when the Russian revolution broke out. Rachmaninov, as a member of the bourgeoisie, had nothing good to expect from the revolution and emigrated first to Scandinavia, later to the USA. During the summer he returned to Europe. He earned his bread as concert pianist as with the departure from his homeland, he initially seemed to have lost all inspiration to write new works. It was only in the Swiss countryside close to Lucerne that he found the will to start composing again. The “Rhapsody” quickly became Rachmaninov’s biggest success after he had left Russia and let him prove that he could still do it.
The outbreak of World War II made him leave Europe for good, but once in the United States, he sat down and went back to work again. In 1941, his “Symphonic Dances, Op. 45” were presented to the public in Philadelphia. Rachmaninov had been asked to compose a ballet, hence the title, but the choreographer died and nothing came of that project. A piece for orchestra, then, in three movements – a show of courage for a composer, who did not have much success before with symphonic works. The audience proved Rachmaninov right – the concert was a triumph. It was Rachmaninov’s final triumph. Rachmaninov died two years later after repeated phases of illness and exhaustion.
The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, has made an excellent recording of the “Dances”, published by Warner, which I listened to several times while writing this post. Looking back, I think this wonderful piece is a moving way to say good-bye for an artist – good-bye to the audience and good-bye to the Romantic era.
© Charles Thibo