Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Rachmaninov: The Four Sisters

Back to Russia, one of its favourite sons - Sergei Rachmaninov - and, yes, some of the world's best-loved piano concertos! 

With a fanfare, the First Piano Concerto in F sharp minor  gets going and a cascade of helter-skeltering octaves from the soloist follows straight on. The fireworks have begun! The fanfare returns, heralding the main theme on violins (soon to be repeated by the pianist). This is a vintage Rachmaninov tune - ardently lyrical, rising with yearning them falling back wistfully, frequently moving by sequences, singing on strings and straying across several keys. A shimmering scherzando passage leads to the second subject, of which much the same as was said of the first may be said again. Its yearning appogiaturas are especially attractive. The orchestra kicks off the development section, drawing attention to motific connections between the two main themes before spiralling towards a climax. At this point the soloist gets to sparkle lightly before singing the main theme again gently. A new climax is built towards before we are eased into the recapitulation - the highlight of which is a brief, romantic counter-melody for solo violin. The cadenza is thematically-involved but is primarily a pianist's display ground. The coda is short and brilliant.

The Andante makes me think of a Chopin nocturne, though the lovely tune on which it meditates has something of Tchaikovsky about it. The movement sounds spontaneous (as if improvised) and the restrained accompaniment - at one point consisting of a single bassoon - is imaginative. 

The Finale could not sound more different to begin with - a coruscating caprice with gypsy material and playful rhythms. However, as the piano sparkles the violins anticipate (with the help of a brief counter-melody) the central episode, where lyricism returns, restoring the slow movement's dreamy spirit with a new melody - and what a melody! This new tune is entirely characteristic (see the list a couple of paragraphs ago) and is the star tune of the concerto. It is sung with tender love by the strings and decorated by the soloist. The effect is gorgeous. The piano then takes it over and rhapsodises over it. It's an unforgettable section. The caprice bounces back in after a full close and is reprised - with changes to its scoring and new counter-melodies. The coda is short but extremely brilliant.

Regularly voted as as the public's most-loved piece of Classical music and no longer disdained by the critics (save for a few holdouts!), Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto in C minor reigns triumphant. To which state of affairs I say, "Good!"

The opening Moderato puts melody on a pedestal and pays it due homage. The movement is rooted it two great tunes, each lasting many bars, every one of which breathes the air of truly inspired lyricism, and both of which obey the classic rules of Rachmaninovian melody (see above), except that the piano gets the first bite at singing the second subject. The piano, interestingly, does surprisingly little singing, being tasked with accompanying, decorating and elaborating. Given the fiendishness of its role, the poor instrument might begrudge the orchestra is possession of swathes of wonderful melody but I doubt it as no one listening is in any doubt that this is a piano concerto. From the famous sequence of depth-charged chords as the very start, the piano's part is charismatic in the extreme - quite a composition feat. The movement also demonstrates the composer's genius in other fields too -  those of harmony and those of architecture. He cues each move and stages each scene like a master dramatist.

The Adagio begins by artfully modulating from one key (C minor) to another (E major). The piano introduces a lovely accompanying idea and the flute and clarinet float a beautiful melody over it. Ah, heart-easing stuff! The soloist and orchestra then swap roles to re-sing the tune. The tempo quickens and the soloist presents a variation on the theme, with an exciting climax (which is reached twice!). A brief cadenza leads to a further quickening and a larger cadenza then a reprise sung by the strings (yet more beautiful!). The coda is blissful.

The Finale is marked 'Allegro scherzando' and, after another modulating introduction, presents a brilliant theme which tumbles like laughter. Attractive subsidiary ideas lead to another of Rachmaninov's great tunes - one everyone remembers. This perfectly-sculpted lyrical gem is the second subject, first sung by oboes and violas over warm horns and pizzicato strings then re-sung passionately by the piano. A splendidly mysterious passage leads to the main theme's return and some development-by-variation thereon (including a fugato). The second subject's own return follows. The mysterious passage then again results in more play with the main theme and prompts an ultra-romantic climax and the cadenza, out of which bursts the second subject in full glory - a thrilling passage. A short but brilliant coda follows. 

'Rach 3', the Third Piano Concerto in D minor, is now almost as popular as its ever-popular predecessor. Again, "Good!"

The first movement opens to a dotted figure in the orchestra - an idea that persists throughout many of the concerto's pages. In this movement, most obviously, it underpins both the main subjects on their initial presentations and plays a major part in the development section. The main theme is another great melody, encompassing a narrow range of intervals but emotionally as board as a Russian bear hug. The piano sings it first, then the violas, each time interestingly and variously accompanied. A brilliant passage erupts, then a beautiful orchestral passage that sounds as if its come straight out of a Russian Orthodox monastery. This is the bridge to the second subject. This new theme begins march-like with light exchanges between soloist and orchestra but is swiftly restated as a lovely, dreamy cantabile (lovingly accompanied). Rachmaninov lingers over this - rightly so! The development section works the main theme sequentially and highly dramatically before becoming a long, severely virtuosic cadenza. This accompanied cadenza takes under its wing much of the recapitulation, after which only brief reminders of the main themes are needed. It's structurally unconventional but works very convincingly.

The central Intermezzo takes the form off a set of variations on a lovely elegiac theme, introduced on oboe and sounding somewhat Grieg-like in character. Despite that it is a characteristic, falling Rachmaninov tune. The strings then re-sing it, then the piano enters, passionately, tumbling over various harmonies in its keenness to vary the melody, which it does in strongly contrasting moods, ranging from the tender to the wild, reaching magnificent romantic heights along the way. The only episode along the way is a folk-like one for woodwinds dancing over pizzicato strings, but this is swiftly swept away again.

A bravura link carries us into the Finale, where bravura is very much on the menu. The percussive main theme is powered by that persistent rhythm from the opening movement. The second subject begins just as percussively but turns cantabile and into a characteristic Rachmaninov tune within seconds. The movement's central section is given over to a set of elaborate variations on a theme that is audibly a fusion of the main theme with that of the second subject of the first movement. This cyclical turn deepens with the subsequent return of the concerto's opening theme. The Finale's own themes are then recapitulated and whirled towards a highly brilliant coda where the second subject achieves its apotheosis. Glorious!

Falling far behind its sisters in the affections of the public, the Fourth Piano Concerto in G minor shows the composer writing less lushly, less romantically. This is late Rachmaninov. That said, there's still much that will appeal to lovers of the earlier concertos, plus other compensations, and its stock can only continue to climb.

The opening is immediately exciting, with the orchestra leaping upwards to meet a long, characteristic melody (rising and falling) from the piano - an idea immediately repeated. This melody begins as a rising scale and rising scales rush through the following episode. This leads to the beautiful second subject - a languid, lyrical gem of a melody (vaguely Spanish in its sultriness). This is dreamed over gently by the soloist, with winning wind contributions, and is a passage of pure magic. The development section glitters with passage work, momentarily invaded by orchestral memories. There then begins a slow build-up, starting with ominously rising brass, decorated by the piano, which accelerates and intensifies to a grand climax - at which point the second subject soars in superbly on strings. Wow! It is then re-sung, gorgeously, gently, by the flutes and other winds with an arpeggiated accompaniment. If this is, again, magical then so is the return of the main theme, soaring heavenward to a rippling accompaniment - a masterstroke. The abrupt coda that cuts such beauty off feels like a mistake to me. Still, what a glorious movement. It's in no way inferior to its equivalents in the well-known concertos. 

The central Largo is much more chaste, taking a simple theme - which no review must neglect to point out has a certain resemblance to 'Three Blind Mice' - and decorating it in gentle exchanges between soloist and orchestra. The theme is ever-present. Even the sudden eruption that is the central agitato is based on it. A rising and falling string counter-melody provides a momentary contrast of material. The movement ends on a half close, which seems apt for such understated but beautiful writing.

The Finale is, at times, bound to remind the listener of Prokofiev in its dry but brightly-coloured vivacity and percussive scherzando style. Where is the big tune? Even Prokofiev usually gives up one! Alas, there's no big tune here, which might disconcert and disappoint some listeners. There is an episode where a fanfare figure is answered by a romantic horn call and a lyrical melody rises fleetingly in response - but 'fleeting' is the word for this episode, as it is for the dreamy interlude midway. Elsewhere it's all pretty much brilliance and punchiness. What a striking, highly imaginative movement this is - even if it's not what you might be expecting.

If you don't know the Fourth Concerto, please give it a try. I doubt you'll regret doing so!

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