Voluptuous melodies with a touch of Zeitgeist

Passion and tenderness. © Charles Thibo

Sergei Rachmaninov had been lucky. He had made it to the United States and had been allowed to stay, despite being a Russian. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 had forced him out of his home country, and he had fled – first to Western Europe. At the time, the US government dreaded that anarchists and communists would destabilize the United States. Congress had enacted a restrictive immigration policy targeting people from Asia,  Africa, the Arab world, Southern and Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, on November 1, 1918 Rachmaninov boarded a ship in Norway and eleven days later he arrived in New York where he and his family settled down. He would stay and become one of the leading figures in classical music up to the 1940s.

Touring the United States

Rachmaninov was aware that by composing alone, he would not be able to feed his family, and he extensively toured the US as a pianist. From time to time until the outbreak of World War II he would return to Europe, again as a performing artist. One of the masterworks that saw the light during that period is the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40. Though Rachmaninov had started with sketches as early as 1924, it was only in January 1926 that he really put his ideas together. The score was almost finished when he took it on a summer trip to Europe where he gave it the last touches. Officially the score is dated “January – 25 August [1926] New York-Dresden”.

The premiere in 1927 in Philadelphia failed to be a success. The audience had expected something else. Something more closely to Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3. “Long-winded, tiresome, unimportant”, opined a critic. The composer wasn’t surprised. And he could handle the critics. What had gone wrong? Nothing, except that the composer had decided to leave Romanticism behind himself. He had done what critics had asked before. He had injected some modern elements into a traditional piano concert.

An unnerving modernity

Rachmaninov’s biographer Max Harrison says that “the unnerving modernity of Concerto No. 4 in its original form is not particularly a matter of higher dissonance level but of its inherent attitudes, of its elliptical structures, the shifting indirectness of some of its statements, their elusiveness being heightened by the directness of others”. We can only guess what the taste of the audience at the time was, but if you listen to this piece today, you will find it highly traditional, firmly anchored in the world of the 19th century despite Rachmaninov efforts to adapt to the evolution of the musical language.

But let’s have a closer look at this piece, as it has been recorded by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the pianist Howard Shelley. “The first movement begins allegro vivace, seemingly in D minor”, writes Harrison, “but swerves suddenly into G minor with orchestral triplets catapulting the pianist into the first theme…” This movement has its sudden shifts, no doubt, but it also has voluptuous melodies that lace it all together. It expresses a great vitality like Rachmaninov’s previous concertos. If the first movement is a display of passion, the second is one of tenderness. Its opening melody is derived from the first subject of the first movement, there – continuity, integrity. A lovely dialogue between piano and orchestra develops, very calm, very serious also.

Looking back to Russia

The last movement takes off with a vivid, “cruelly demanding solo part”, as Harrison puts it, and he goes on to describe it as “lean” and “athletic”. It leads to another dialogue between the pianist and the orchestra, but no, it actually sounds more like a duel. The ensuing second theme is extended over many bars until the orchestra completely takes over for some time. Then the piano comes back and towards the end it takes up the work’s initial theme just as if it would remember its origin – a thankful look back.

Rachmaninov’s last piano concerto has something of a thankful, tender look back. He had been forced out of Russia. He had been welcomed in Europe and adopted by America. He was thankful to his new host for giving him shelter, but also to his home country for what it had given him in his early years: a chance.

© Charles Thibo

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One thought on “Voluptuous melodies with a touch of Zeitgeist”

  1. Heard Boris Berezovsky perform this last year. He requested that the piano be IN the orchestra, facing the conductor, pointing toward the audience, due to its integration into the orchestra.
    It’s an interesting work, one I really haven’t opened up to yet, but need to give a few more listens to.

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