Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2
September 30, 2007 at 7:30 PM
October 1, 2007 at 8:00 PM
- Adagio sostenuto
- Allegro scherzando
- Valentina Lisitsa, piano
- Introduction - Of the Otherworldsmen - Of the Great Yearning - Of Joys and Passions - Grave Song - Of Science - The Convalescent - Dance Song - Song of the Night Wanderer - Conclusion
Concert Sound Bites
In 1887, ten years after he composed them, Dvořák offered his Symphonic Variations to conductor Hans Richter. Richter was delighted with them, and wrote to Dvořák, “I come positively carried away by the first rehearsal for the Third Concert...It is a magnificent work!” Successful in their own right, the Symphonic Variations also influenced several other composers, particularly Elgar’s Enigma Variations.
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, his most popular and well known, embodies his signature style, the pairing of rich velvety harmonies with deeply emotional melodies. It is now part of popular culture, thanks to figure skater Sasha Cohen, who skated to it in a recent long program. Its unabashed Romanticism and the virtuosity demanded of the soloist make this concerto a show stopper and a perennial audience favorite.
The opening movement of Also sprach Zarathustra is instantly familiar to movie-goers as the dramatic music used by director Stanley Kubrick in his sci-fi classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although used in that context to further the narrative of the film, Strauss’ epic tone poem is not a musical portrayal of a story, but rather the philosophical ideas put forth in Nietzsche’s allegory.
DVOŘÁK (b. 1841, Mühlhausen, Bohemia; d. 1904, Prague)
Symphonic Variations, Opus 78 (1877)
First Oregon Symphony performance.
Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations were first performed at a charity concert by the Czech Interim Theatre Orchestra, led by Dr. Ludevít Procházka, in Prague, on December 2, 1877. The audience responded with great enthusiasm, but since the concert was a charity benefit, the press overlooked it, much to Dvořák’s dismay. Discouraged, he shelved the Symphonic Variations for ten years. In 1887, responding to increased demand for his music, Dvořák resurrected the Variations and offered them to conductor Hans Richter for an upcoming London performance. Richter accepted and wrote back, “I am glad to be the first to perform it in London, but why have you kept it back so long? These Variations can take their place among the best of your compositions.” Richter’s assessment proved correct, and Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations became enormously successful.
There are twenty-seven variations of the main theme, taken from the opening measures of Dvořák’s choral work, “I am a poor wandering fiddler.” The text of these measures describes the happiness of a wandering musician, which may have had something to do with Dvořák’s decision to use them; however, the melody, with its asymmetrical shape and uneven phrases, also readily lends itself to a number of different treatments. Throughout this work Dvořák displays his ever-growing command of orchestration; these variations also mark the turning point for Dvořák’s focus on the nationalistic style that characterized his later works. In the first 16 variations, Dvořák adds a number of contrapuntal accompaniments, while maintaining the original theme’s meter (2/4) and key (C major). The 17th variation Scherzo signals a departure from both meter and key, until the final variation, a tremendous fugue, recalls the opening measures of the theme before ending with a glorious blast of sound.
The Symphonic Variations are scored for two flutes (one doubling piccolo), pairs of oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle and strings.
RACHMANINOFF (b. 1873, Oneg, Russia; d. 1943, Beverly Hills, CA)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus 18 (1900-01)
Most recently performed by the Oregon Symphony in April 2004.
In 1900 Rachmaninoff was at low ebb, professionally and emotionally. His Symphony No. 1 had premiered to dismal reviews three years earlier, triggering a paralyzing depression that continued to plague Rachmaninoff throughout his life. As he recounted in his Memoirs: “I did nothing and found no pleasure in anything. Half my days were spent lying on a couch and sighing over my ruined life.” In desperation, Rachmaninoff sought help from a hypnotist, Dr. Nicolai Dahl, who was also an amateur string player. Dahl, using hypnotic techniques, would plant encouraging thoughts about writing the concerto in Rachmaninoff’s head during their sessions. In Rachmaninoff’s Recollections, the composer recounts, “I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day while I lay half asleep in my armchair in Dr. Dahl’s study, ‘You will begin to write your concerto...You will work with great facility...The concerto will be of excellent quality...’ It was always the same, without interruption. Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me.” With Dahl’s help, Rachmaninoff was able to complete the concerto, and it was well-received by audiences at its premiere on October 14, 1901, by the Moscow Philharmonic Society, led by Rachmaninoff’s cousin Alexander Siloti, with Rachmaninoff at the piano.A year later, when the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor was published, Rachmaninoff dedicated it to “Monsieur N. Dahl.”
The concerto opens with a series of chords by the soloist that grow in volume and intensity; this ushers in the strings with the main theme, while the piano executes rippling arpeggios underneath. Interestingly for a piano concerto, the soloist’s role in this movement is largely one of accompaniment, until the second theme, one of Rachmaninoff’s most familiar and beloved, appears. The movement continues with a rousing march in the piano, which dissolves into a solo horn intoning the second theme, signaling a lyrical coda. The opening intensity returns for a brief, fiery conclusion.
The sensual beauty of the Adagio sostenuto creates an atmosphere of enchantment, almost otherworldliness. The primary melody is heard first in the clarinet and flute, with the piano accompanying. The soloist then takes up the melody, one of serene, unabashed romanticism, and develops it, with woodwinds and strings accompanying. A brief interlude signals the soloist’s cadenza and a final restatement of the theme.
For the final Allegro scherzando, the lower instruments murmur a brief introduction to the soloist’s opening showy cadenza, which segues into the staccato pulsing rhythm of the first theme. All too quickly we arrive at the second theme, a lyrical contrasting idea heard first in the violas and solo oboe. The two themes vie for prominence as the mood of this movement shifts abruptly from jittery agitation to ecstatic rhapsody. Rachmaninoff concludes with a pull-out-all-the-stops ending featuring the rhapsodic theme.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 is scored for solo piano, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals and strings.
STRAUSS (b. 1864, Munich; d. 1949, Garmisch-Partenkirchen)
Also sprach Zarathustra, Opus 30 (1896)
Most recently performed by the Oregon Symphony in March 2001.
As a young man, Strauss expanded the boundaries of musical expression with his innovative tone poems Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel. When Strauss encountered philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, he was inspired to represent Nietzsche’s philosophical allegory musically. While the choice of subject may seem odd, it was Nietzsche himself, a trained musician, who first made the connection between Also sprach Zarathustra and music. “Where does this Zarathustra really belong?,” asked Nietzsche as he worked on it. “Almost, I think, among the symphonies.” Strauss, by way of explanation, wrote: “I meant rather to convey in music an idea of the evolution of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of development, religious as well as scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch (Superman). The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to the genius of Nietzsche.” The score was published with an excerpt from the book, in which Zarathustra descends from his mountain hermitage to share his wisdom with humanity.
The movements of Strauss’ tone poem correspond with chapter headings in Nietzsche’s book, but it is unclear whether Strauss conceived the music around these titles or simply added them after the music was composed. The introduction, best known to audiences from Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey, represents Nature, specifically the sunrise. Strauss scored this glorious burst of color and warmth in the brasses, with a supporting harmonic pedal in the organ, in C major, which represents Nature. In the second movement, Of the Otherworldsmen, Strauss depicts the unliberated masses of humanity, hobbled by outmoded religious beliefs that prevent them from evolving into Nietzsche’s Supermen. It begins with the low strings and winds, while the horns sound the Credo from the Latin Mass. A lyrical interlude for strings follows, which segues into the next movement, Of Great Longing. The Nature theme is heard, and the horns once again intone the Credo, against a background of tremolo strings. The C major tonality representing Nature is in direct harmonic conflict with B major, which represents humanity. They combine together in a whirlwind of sound that ushers in the following movement, Of Joys and Passions. The unrestrained power of human emotion is portrayed in all its ardent glory, as strings, harp and brasses swirl melodies of passionate exclamation. Without pause Strauss moves on to the next movement, The Dirge, a combination of melodies from the previous two movements. Here Zarathustra mourns the passing of his youth, and Strauss writes an elegiac passage for strings, with accompanying woodwinds.
In the movement Of Learning, Strauss writes the most complicated, sophisticated music possible: a monumental, densely textured fugue whose subject, using all the notes of the chromatic scale, is based on the Nature and Humanity themes. This segues without pause into The Convalescent, a passage in which Zarathustra recovers from a lengthy illness and becomes a prophet. The fugue subject of the preceding movement transforms into a mighty scherzo and a bold statement of the Nature theme. Out of all the sound and fury a solo cello plays the theme of longing. The Dance Song seems at odds with the previous movements, but Strauss, a lover of the Viennese waltz, nevertheless features a lilting solo violin accompanied by winds and harp. The dainty beginning of this extended movement builds to a dense, impassioned finale, The Night-Wanderer’s Song, which begins with the tolling of a bell sounding midnight. The movement ends quietly, but with the eternal conflict between Nature and Humanity unresolved: The basses intone a steady C major, while the high strings and woodwinds sound an angelic chord in B major.
Also sprach Zarathustra is scored for four flutes (two doubling piccolo), three oboes, English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, two tubas, timpani, bass drum, chime, cymbals, glockenspiel, triangle, two harps, organ and divisi strings.
Program Notes by Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer and musician based in the Portland area. She is the program annotator for the Oregon Symphony, the Cascade Festival of Music, and has also contributed to NPR’s “Performance Today,” (now heard on American Public Media). Ms. Schwartz holds a B.A. in music from the University of California and an M.M. from Boston University. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Recommended Recordings by Michael Parsons
DVOŘÁK - Symphonic Variations
Istvan Kertesz-London Symphony
Decca Originals 475773
Rafael Kubelik-Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon 469366
RACHMANINOFF - Piano Concerto No. 2
Fritz Reiner-Chicago Symphony
RCA Victor Red Seal 63035
Andre Previn-London Symphony
Leopold Stokowski-The Philadelphia Orchestra
RCA Victor Gold Seal 61658
STRAUSS - Also sprach Zarathustra
Fritz Reiner-Chicago Symphony
RCA Victor Red Seal 61389
Herbert von Karajan-Berlin Philharmonic
Deutsche Grammophon 447441
These selected recordings are available at Classical Millennium, located at 3144 E. Burnside in Portland.