The Composer Offers Himself a Surprise

© Charles Thibo

Rimsky-Korsakov is well-known for his symphonic poems and his operas. However, he has also written a piano concerto, rarely performed but no less interesting than his other works. It is just as lyrical as his symphonic poems, and over time this short, lovely piece has become one of my favourites. The composer wrote his Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor (op. 30) between 1882 and 1883, after he had met his patron Mitrofan Belayev. Rimsky-Korsakov belonged to the circle of artists who emphasized the national element in Russian music, and Belayev, a nouveau-riche industrialist believing in a greater role for Russian, felt drawn towards the composer.

It was Mily Balakirev, the leader of the Mighty Five*, who had encouraged Rimsky-Korsakov to write a piano concerto although the composer was not a naturally born pianist. The result exceeded the expectations of both the composer and Balakirev. “It must be said that it sounded beautiful and proved entirely satisfactory with respect to piano technique and style.” Rimsky-Korsakov had found inspiration in Franz Liszt’s piano concertos and a fantasy written by Eduard Napravnik, a piece Rimsky-Korsakov had conducted in Moscow in 1882.

A few years before his death Rimsky-Korsakov wrote: “In every new work of mine  am trying to do something that is new for me. On the one hand, I am encouraged by the thought that in this way [my music] will retain freshness and interest, but at the same time I am prompted by my pride that many facets, devices, mood and styles, if not all, should be within my reach.” So why did he not pursue the path of the piano concerto when this first piece of that genre was so promising? Maybe the composer dreaded to be compared with his most illustrious contemporary, Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky harboured ambiguous feelings towards Rimsky-Korsakov. He highly appreciated some of his music, the Capriccio Espagnol for example, at the same time he condemned in strong words some of his earlier works and a manual on music theory that Rimsky-Korsakov had written. He confessed, the manual reminded him of is own dreadful harmony classes and might explain his harsh criticism.

Still he wanted to remain on the best terms with the composer noting that “To my mind, with your direct, ideally honest, character, and with your outstanding artistic and pedagogical qualities, you have the makings of an excellent director [of the Moscow Conservatory].” Actually he hoped that Rimsky-Korsakov would accept a teaching post in Moscow if he would be offered one. By 1887, the two men would meet frequently, partly because Rimsky-Korsakov’s had grown tired of Balakirev’s dogmatic ideas and authoritarian attitudes.

The Piano Concerto in C-sharp Minor is a smaller and much less elaborate works than any of Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos. But it is a lovely work with melodies easy to remember, interesting surprises and overall harmonious layout. It has been recorded by Paul Badura-Skoda and the London Promenade Orchestra under Artur Rodzinki.

© Charles Thibo


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de Chareli

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