Brute Force and Utmost Delicacy – Rachmaninov’s Romantic Apogee

The world anew. © Charles Thibo

“I am perpetually dissatisfied with myself. Nothing but continuous torture.” Such goes the composer’s lament, and no, it’s not Pyotr Tchaikovsky who, admittedly, was very gifted in terms of self-pity. Another Russian composer, Sergei Rachmaninov, wrote these lines to his friend Nikita Morozov in March 1909. He was about to sail to America for a concert tour and he was struggling with a new piece for orchestra and piano that would become by September 1909 Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30. He was 36 years old and definitely one of the rising composers of his time. Despite all misgivings.

Lyrical, emotional, stirring

One of the challenges that Rachmaninov faced was to write a piano concert that would be different from the previous one, that I discussed in an earlier post. Rachmaninov’s biographer Max Harrison says that Piano Concerto No. 3 demonstrated the composer’s ever-growing range of expression; the piece is “superior in flow and continuity to Concerto No. 2, more sophisticated [as far as the structure is concerned] and of greater rhythmic variety.” For me it is one of the most beautiful pieces Rachmaninov ever wrote. It is very lyrical, at times extremely stirring, highly emotional without being pompous. The only draw-back for the musicians: It requires really high virtuosic skills to perform the solo part.

Martha the piano tigress

Just for the fun of it, I will quote the magazine “Gramophone” describing Martha Argerich playing the first of the three movements, “where the tigress in her [Argerich!] shows her claws and the music is made to seethe and boil. […] Her first entry in the intermezzo [the second movement] interrupts the orchestra’s musing with the impatience of a hurricane […] In the finale she finds it [the musical expression that Rachmaninov had in mind], accelerating out of the second movement with a sky-rocketing propulsion. Here the music races like wildfire, with a death-defying turn of speed […] and an explosive energy throughout that must have left audience, conductor and orchestra feeling as if hit by some seismic shock-wave.”

Performing from the manuscript

I have some trouble imagining Martha Argerich as a tigress sky-rocketing out of the concert hall, but hey, music critics are people with a vivid imagination. Anyway, Rachmaninov used the time he sailed from Europe to New York to practice the demanding solo part. He had finished writing the piece on September 23 and embarked three weeks later. There had been no time to get the score printed and so it had to be performed from the manuscript. He found the piano on the ship not up to his expectations and he referred to it as a “mechanical toy”, but he did not have much of a choice.

Denis Matsuev wild piano embrace

The premiere took place on November 28, performed by Rachmaninov and the New York Symphony Orchestra led by Walter Damrosch. A local music critic found it “sound, reasonable music” and “too long”. I heard it Monday evening in Luxembourg, performed by St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra under Yuri Temirkanov and Denis Matsuev at the piano – and it was simply fabulous! And with the benefit of hindsight I understand the music critic’s outburst.

Matsuev, an expert performer of Rachmaninov’s works, displayed an amazing skill to switch back and forth from brute force to utmost delicacy – at times a wild embrace of the piano, at other’s a gentle, tactful caress. Through most if the concert I was ecstatic, hypnotized by the raw beauty and emotional depth of the piece and Matsuev’s incredible show. Bravo, bravissimo!

And if you want to explore this stunning piece of art, try the recording by Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Bryden Thomson and Howard Shelley on the piano.   While it doesn’t beat Monday’s live performance, it is nevertheless a really good recording!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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