Fun To Do The Impossible, Albert Einstein

Romantic Virtuosity

Rachmaninoff’s face was immobile; his concertos are full of intense emotion

The unparalleled mastery of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) as a composer, pianist and conductor places him at the top of the so-called triple-crown artists. This achievement is seen in his four piano concertos, whose similarity of architecture, soaring, Slavic-tinged passion and sensuality, and exciting rhythmic passages are the common thread that weaves the four into one grand tableau.

Rachmaninoff’s First Concerto was started in 1890, when he was 17. By that time he had already begun sketching the most famous of all his concertos, the Second. He chose, however, to continue writing the first movement of the First Concerto, completing it in 1891 while still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. It was performed the following year and was well received (in the 19th century, playing one movement of a work was standard practice). After putting the First Concerto aside for almost a year, he rushed to finish it and told a friend that he had orchestrated the second and third movements in two days! Starting a work and not completing it until later was typical of him.

The First was performed in its entirety shortly thereafter with great success. A leading critic wrote, “There was not yet, of course, any individuality but there was taste, tension, youthful sincerity and obvious knowledge; already there is much promise.” It is a remarkable work both for its bravura and its rhythmic ingenuity, though, except for the lovely, nocturne-like theme of the second movement, the themes are of a somewhat lesser quality than those in his later concertos. The cadenza — where the orchestra is silent and the pianist becomes the lone performer “playing” with the previous themes in different keys and different rhythms — is striking for its surging lyricism and exploding virtuosity. The concerto was largely rewritten in 1917, becoming the version now performed. The extraordinary cadenza is the only part that remained unchanged.

After initially sketching the Second Concerto, it took Rachmaninoff 11 years to begin writing it. In the interim, he had composed and conducted an opera, “Aleko,” many songs, and his First Symphony — a failure. He once confessed to a friend, “I have no faith in myself. There is in the whole world no critic as doubtful of me than myself.” Having fallen into a deep depression, he was persuaded to consult with Dr. Nicolai Dahl, a hypnotherapist. While Rachmaninoff was in a hypnotic state, he was told again and again, “You are going to write a new, beautiful concerto.” And that is what he did.

The first performance of the second and third movements in 1900 met with enormous fanfare. The Second Concerto, dedicated to Dr. Dahl, was performed in its entirety a year later. The viola section in this score is more prominent than usual; could that be because the doctor was also an accomplished violist? This concerto is famous for its many memorably beautiful themes, some of which have become popular songs or been used as movie themes. “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” written by Ted Mossman and Buddy Kaye, was even recorded by Frank Sinatra.

The Second Concerto differs from his others in that Rachmaninoff made the piano and orchestra equal partners, unusual writing for a great pianist. Often, he has the orchestra playing the theme with the piano in the role of accompanist. Even the impassioned opening theme, which appears throughout the concerto, is played only by the orchestra. It is also the only time his writing for the piano was technically awkward. Rachmaninoff agreed that it was “uncomfortable to play.” He obviously had not yet regained his self-confidence and probably chose not to write a cadenza to avoid playing alone, unsupported.

The Third Concerto, written in his favorite key, D minor, is a pianist’s “tour de force” in which the piano always dominates. It is probably the most difficult work to play in the romantic-virtuoso repertoire. Composers usually write according to the range and dimension of their hands and, in the case of Rachmaninoff, they were unusually large. Ironically, he dedicated the towering Third to his favorite pianist, Josef Hoffman, who could never play it because of his small hands! Full of searing passion and sweeping grandeur, it is always extremely pianistic and makes the most difficult passages feel comfortable “in the hand.” While his immobile face conveyed none of what he was feeling inside, his intensely powerful emotions and exciting virtuosity are evident in all that he wrote.

The Third was written with America in mind — a big concerto for a big country — and was to have its premiere in 1909 with the New York Symphony Orchestra (in 1928 this orchestra merged with the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York to become the New York Philharmonic), conducted by Walter Damrosch. In New York, Rachmaninoff as well as the orchestra had to play the concerto from the manuscript, as it had yet to be printed. It was a tremendous triumph but somehow did not immediately capture the attention of other pianists.

On meeting the great Vladimir Horowitz for the first time, Rachmaninoff declared, “I wrote this concerto for an elephant!” Horowitz seemed to be the “elephant” who lit the way for its future acclaim. The composer remarked that its beautiful opening theme “is borrowed neither from folk music nor from church sources; it simply wrote itself.”

Alas, the Fourth Concerto, completed in 1926, is not of the caliber of the other three. Rachmaninoff seems to have been writing from his head, not his heart. Despite some lovely moments and the last movement’s original writing, it fell far short of everyone’s expectations. Rachmaninoff revised the Fourth several times, but to no avail. This was a major blow to him, as he had not composed anything since 1916. After agonizing for months, he withdrew the Fourth from his repertoire. It remains the least played and recorded of his concertos.

Rachmaninoff’s first three concertos, however, deserve to be called masterpieces. They have withstood the test of time and set a standard by which all romantic-virtuoso concertos should be measured.

Reproduced with permission of the WSJ