Thursday, 28 February 2013

Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini

Amidst all the lightly worn ingenuities and the late-style dryness of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini - a dryness that at times reveals a surprising kinship with Prokofiev - there is also found the 'Old Believer' Rachmaninov, dreaming , chanting and, above all, singing with the fervour of a true Romantic. When many people think of the piece - and when it appears (massively abridged) on pop classic compilations - they tend to only think of the the variation that exemplifies this Romantic side - the 18th.

This is the variation where the beloved Rachmaninov of the Second Piano Concerto is re-born. Without such passages might not the Rhapsody be languishing alongside the Fourth Piano Concerto in the cupboard where composers' Cinderella works are put away? Possibly, although you would hope not as the other 23 variations contain gem after gem. 

Before we hear the theme itself, based, on course, on Paganini's 24th Caprice, Variation I presents its bare bones - an ingenious idea. The theme then enters on violins, against which the piano points out those self-same bones again before putting some flesh on them, brilliantly. The early variations flash by engagingly then, with Variation VI we enter a new, dreamier landscape - albeit one with bags of sparkle still. This is followed by a lovely variation where we meet the Rhapsody's second theme - the Dies Irae chant that ran like a leitmotif through the composer's output. Here is it set in counterpoint to the Paganini theme. Variation VIII is exciting and somewhat Brahmsian while its successor is chase-like music. This build-up of  energy climaxes in Variation X with the Dies Irae's return.

A pause, and then Variation XI. This is rhapsodic, with string tremolos setting a melancholy stage for the pianist's improvisatory flourishes. The Minuet variation that follows is melodically attractive. Variation XIII is an excellent, furious waltz and Variation XIV is just as gripping - a veritable cavalry charge of a movement! After a glinting, smiling scherzo comes an idyll featuring a pastoral oboe a lark-like part for solo violin. Variation XVII couldn't be a greater contrast - chromatic, sombre and sinister. It's an inspired stroke on Rachmaninov's part as it gets us in the mood for a return to the light....

and in Variation XVIII the light floods in with the piano's soft singing of the composer's best-known tune (an inversion of the Paganini theme). The strings then sweep in and take it over, singing with full throat to the accompaniment of the soloist's rich, resonant arpeggiated chords, climaxing with thrilling ardour then ebbing away gradually, like a sunset. A final tender reminder of the tune is the final masterstroke. The way this variation is 'staged' is unbeatable.

After this ultra-Romantic 'slow movement' in miniature comes the glittering finale comprising the final six variations. It offers the listener lots of virtuoso piano playing - and virtuoso composing. Pizzicato strings meet staccato piano first. Then the forest of strings seethes against heroic figures from the soloist. A fast tumble of rhythms leads to a climactic march variation, in which the Dies Irae returns, followed by the final pair of variations, both of which sparkle with colour and cadenza-like writing for the piano. Lest the Dies Irae's final appearance may strike too dark a note, the throw-away closing bars are guaranteed to leave the listener smiling.

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