Festival shines light on other Rachmaninoff masterpieces – Matt Campbell

The Rachmaninoff Festival is here! For Rachmaninoff zealots, the festival is a dream come true. The festival gives us the opportunity to hear tons of Rachmaninoff live. The PSO performs two concerts of Rachmaninoff: April 3-5: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphony No. 1, Spring Cantata and April 17-19: Vocalise, Symphonic Dances, Piano Concerto No. 3. There are also recitals of chamber music (including the sublime Piano Sonata No. 2, the elegiac piano trios written in response to the death of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff’s idol, the nostalgic Cello Sonata, and much more) around Pittsburgh. Visit www.pittsburghsymphony.org/rachmaninoff for a full schedule of events, times, locations, etc.


I was very pleased that the two PSO concerts have a mix of the extremely familiar Rachmaninoff, the Paganini rhapsody, and third piano concerto, and even Symphonic Dances. Those are great works, and it’s always fun to hear a barn burner of a performance of those warhorses. But, I’m probably more excited for the less common works on the programs: Symphony No. 1 and the Spring Cantata.


First Symphony

Most people know the story that Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2 is all the more impressive an achievement because he had been depressed and miserable for several years before he wrote that work. What people might not know is that the cause of all of that depression was the terrible failure of his Symphony No. 1, premiered in 1897. 


Don’t be alarmed, however: Rachmaninoff’s first symphony is an incredibly exciting and beautiful work, and the criticism of it back in 1897 was unjust, and it actually had very little to do with the music itself. For one thing, Rachmaninoff’s symphony wasn’t given justice by the conductor, Alexander Glazunov, who, legend has it, was intoxicated during the concert.


More interesting, however, is that Rachmaninoff got caught up in political crossfire having nothing to do with his music. The scathing review that destroyed Rachmaninoff’s confidence was penned by Cesar Cui, one of the nationalist composers known as the “mighty handful.” Cui had political motivations, however: He and the handful were ideologically opposed to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, being the precocious heir apparent to Tchaikovsky, got in trouble. Cui and the handful were nationalist composers, and relied on Russian folk music for their inspiration (think Mussorgsky and Night on Bare Mountain). They were reactionaries to Tchaikovsky, who adhered to Western principles of composition and, the handful felt, wasn’t Russian enough. Cui wanted homegrown Russian music, not imported Western music.

That tension between backwards Russian culture and European modernization of Russia existed for a long time in Russian history, from when Peter the Great stomped on Russian culture in a bid to modernize Russia and make it a powerful player, by adopting European practices. Russiahad been a savage and diverse nation, neither European nor Asian. I had a Russian professor who liked to say that there was no Russian without a drop of Mongol blood (from when Russia was occupied by Genghis Khan).

Rachmaninoff’s first symphony to me is a really beautiful work, and it has all of the traits of Rachmaninoff’s better-known works that we all love: romance, nostalgia, a yearning quality. The work shows the powerful influence of Tchaikovsky, so if you like Tchaikovsky’s music, you’ll love Rachmaninoff’s symphony.


Even though Rachmaninoff abandoned the work, it was rediscovered after he died, and received many performances since then. Eugene Ormandy, Mariss Jansons, Leonard Slatkin, Lorin Maazel have all recorded the first symphony.


Spring Cantata

Rachmaninoff’s 1902 Cantata is wonderfully orchestrated, and you may at times feel like you’re listening to Ravel. The text of the work is about a peasant whose wife admits she’s been unfaithful. The couple spends a terrible winter together, but the tension dissipates when spring arrives, and they renew their love. The work also perhaps reflects Rachmaninoff’s own triumph and rebirth with the Piano Concerto No. 2, written 1900-1901, after three years of depression brought on by the failure of his first symphony.


The first entrance of the chorus is amazing: After a quiet orchestral introduction, the chorus in full force triumphantly sings a verse, they’ll repeat throughout the work:


“They come rustling,

The sounds of green,

The sounds of green,

The sounds of spring!”


Just reading those lines (that text lines up with the Russian pretty well, keeping the same rhythm) shows the incredible musicality of them. Just imagine hearing a huge chorus singing them!


Rachmaninoff wrote a ton of great music, and hopefully this festival will help you realize that, and you’ll discover more music by Rachmaninoff that you’ll cherish as much as his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and second and third piano concertos!


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