Mocking Questions and Snappy Answers

Banter in the darkness. © Charles Thibo

You will agree with me that I chose a curious picture to illustrate this post. The curious nature of the piece I will present is the reason: Sergei Rachmaninov’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 19. Perhaps you have already discovered this piece by yourself. It has been recorded by Francoise Groben and Alfredo Perl just like the Grieg’s sonata for these two instruments (see the post dated October 20, 2016).

Rachmaninov’s piece is warm and frightening at the same time, just like the picture: a glimpse of a red-orange in an ocean of blue and grey. Here’s the story behind the picture. To the naked eye, this ocean of blue and grey was a pitch-dark syk with the moon almost completely hidden by thick low-level clouds. The camera amplified every light source and especially the reflection of orange city lights on the clouds – something that I did not see actually. Awkward, isn’t it?

The Russian composer dedicated the sonata to the cellist Anatoly Brandukov, who played the cello part at the premiere on December 15, 1901 while Rachmaninov himself playing “the terrifyingly difficult piano part” as Classic FM puts it. Brandukov was Rachmaninov’s friend and best man at the composer’s wedding. It was the last piece of chamber music Rachmaninov would ever write.

Hidden messages

At the surface, the sonata is a melancholic Romantic piece with everything you would expect: longing, tenderness, pain, anger at times, moments of unabated joy. It is remarkable for exploring the full range of the cello and still maintaining an internal coherence. But I have listened to this piece now many times and there are hidden messages.

The unexpected pizzicato* accompanied (accompanying) the piano – is that Rachmaninov mockingly interrogating his critics? “What do you want actually? Leave me alone. I compose whatever I want!” he seems to say. The sonata was the second major piece Rachmaninov composed after the dramatic failure of his Symphony No. 1 and the ensuing personal crisis. Its premiere immediately followed the premiere of Piano Concerto No. 2 that I have discussed in a post a year ago.

The second movement begins with an insisting, grave interrogation by the cello, and the piano gives it snappy, almost provocative answers. The cello adopts a more conciliatory tone and halfway through the movement the two instruments stick with their respective temper but engage in a playful banter as if Rachmaninov wanted to say: “Look, we may have our differences, but is this a reason to quarrel?” And he immediately gives the answer: “Let’s not take ourselves too seriously.”

A late heir to Romanticism

The third movement is straightforward without surprises, while the appeal of the finale resides in the first vivacious theme where the cello and the piano take off like a rocket, followed by passionate second theme. Some of the musical material used here has already that very personal stamp that would mark Rachmaninov’s works for piano.

Rachmaninov presents himself here – at the beginning of his career as a composer – as a true heir to the Romantic tradition of the 19th century. Some argued he was born 50 years too late and as such out of sync with the musical evolution. His music however hasn’t lost its appeal, it has become timeless and proved all critics wrong.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.