Thoughts on Rach Festival Finale – Matt Campbell

The Rediscovering Rachmaninoff Festival finishes up this weekend, when Leonard Slatkin leads the PSO in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Vocalise and Piano Concerto No. 3 with Denis Matsuev, Friday through Sunday.

Piano Concerto No. 3
Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto is one of my favorite pieces of Rachmaninoff’s, and it’s full of haunting passages that to me are very psychological. This is one argument I would make to put Rachmaninoff as a 20th-century composer, rather than an anachronistic representative of the bygone Romantic era. An example of what I mean is passages where the pianist is playing chords that steadily creep up, but happening simultaneously are quick chromatic runs that drag the pianist in the other direction. So, you’ve got the steady creeping up battling the insane notes skittering down into the abyss. This up versus down tension is an incredibly simple yet powerful idea and composers have always used it to great effect. There are also many quick passages where the piano or a solo instrument plays a melody that quickly fades into silence; this piece is full of utterances. In the third movement, there’s a melody fraught with tritones, giving an eerie veneer to an otherwise positive melody.

The cadenzas (solo parts that really showcase the pianist) are incredible in the concerto, and feature giant crashing chords that careen crazily. There are two versions of the cadenza, and I do not know which Matsuev will perform, but they’re both great.

The concerto is wildly difficult, and there is a lot for the pianist to do. However, unlike many concertos, the difficulty’s not just for show; it always serves an expressive purpose. Complicated, arpeggiated textures aren’t there for to impress, they’re there to roil and leave you unsettled. Other times, those figures are just there for beauty and to accompany solo instruments. And, while this is a piano concerto, there are plenty of wonderful parts for the orchestra. And, the orchestra is an important player in this concerto. In a lot of recordings of this concerto, I’ve felt the conductor has been too passive in allowing the pianist to take over. Leonard Slatkin, however, always gives very detailed, thoughtful performances, and so I expect we’ll hear a piece of music with arguments and emotion, rather than simply a showcase of Denis Matsuev (as if that would be a bad thing!).

Another thing I find interesting and “psychological” is the fact that the opening theme on the piano comes back so many times. That in itself isn’t interesting — it’s standard operating procedure — but it’s interesting that the first movement ends with that theme, but it hasn’t been transformed. After 15 or so minutes, you’re back at where you started, and all of the argument and angry chords haven’t solved anything. The first movement ends somewhat abruptly, with a question mark. That theme comes back, again unchanged from the very beginning of the concerto, several minutes into the third movement, which starts out triumphantly.

Symphonic Dances
This work, another of my favorite Rachmaninoff works, is very poignant, and it is a valedictory work. Rachmaninoff’s music was popular with audiences during his lifetime, though critics thought it was outdated. Rachmaninoff tried unsuccessfully to change his style with the obscure fourth piano concerto, but in Symphonic Dances he wrote what he wanted to write, and wrote how he had always written, despite what critics would say.

This rhythmic work is full of excitement but it also has the characteristic beautiful, slow moments we would expect. The final movement is permeated with the dreaded “Dies irae” theme present in so much of Rachmaninoff’s music, and it’s fascinating to see how Rachmaninoff treated that theme in his final work. (If you don’t know the theme, listen to it here:

So, don't miss the finale of the Rediscovering Rachmaninoff Festival, and hopefully you’ve enjoyed revisiting and reevaluating this composer as much as I have.


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