Not Logged In
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, opus 30
Born in Semyonovo, Russia, April 1, 1973; died in Beverly Hills, California, March 28, 1943
In 1909, Sergei Rachmaninoff signed a contract to undertake his first American tour. Eight years before the Russian Revolution, he could not have guessed that he would one day be a U.S. resident, but he did know he wanted to make a strong impression in the lucrative American market. And he decided that a new concerto was required.
His Third Piano Concerto, in D minor, was composed the summer before the tour at his country estate, Ivanovka. On the boat to America, he practiced the new concerto on a dummy keyboard. Rachmaninoff claimed it was "more comfortable" to play than his Second Concerto, but then he possessed unique physical characteristics and digital facility: at 6'5" in height, he had extraordinarily long-fingered hands that could span an octave and a fifth at the keyboard.
Although the Third Concerto scored a success at its premiere on November 28, 1909 with the New York Symphony (now the New York Philharmonic), it was slow to win the mystique it possesses today. It was Vladimir Horowitz who began to build the Third's legend as the ultimate virtuoso vehicle, and Van Cliburn who cemented it in the years after his gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958.
Is this really the most difficult of all piano concertos to play? The recent movie Shine wove quite a fable, suggesting that the Third's ferocious demands drove poor David Helfgott into madness. But, in fact, plenty of pianists play the work today and keep all their wits. Yes, it is highly demanding technically: requiring the utmost facility in executing very fast and/or intricately written passages and in encompassing extremely brawny chords. However, Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto might well exceed it in this respect. It also demands stamina, for during its nearly 40–minute length, the pianist receives little rest. But "Rach 3," as it's known in the business, is a complete test for the pianist not for these reasons alone. It also requires a broad expressive range: from imposing drama to quicksilver wit to songful lyricism. If the pianist cannot meet these interpretative tests, then a brilliant technique will not save him. Rachmaninoff prized his gifts as a composer above his talent as a pianist, and he wished far more to impress Americans with his creative ability.
First Movement: For a concerto with such a virtuosic reputation, the Third opens with surprising simplicity and tranquility. Over a rocking accompanimental figure (which will recur throughout the concerto), the pianist launches an expressive song, played in bare octaves between the two hands. Its stepwise motion, pivoting around the tonic note of D, and its narrow range suggest Russian Orthodox chant. This lengthy melody is eventually given to violas and horns, while the piano embroiders a free fantasia above. The movement's second theme appears first as a choppy, rhythmic idea passed between orchestra and piano before the soloist smoothes it into a lovely flowing melody over rippling arpeggios.
A return of the opening music launches the development section, built around the chant theme and giving the pianist plentiful opportunities to display his virtuoso skills. It ranges from high drama to eerie nocturnal passages before slipping into a big cadenza for the soloist. Rachmaninoff wrote two — the first longer and more showy, which most pianists play today; and the second shorter and slightly more understated, which Rachmaninoff himself preferred. Then the lyrical version of the second theme and the opening music are briefly reprised. Ghostly wind fanfares usher the movement to a soft, moody close.
In the second-movement Intermezzo, though the mode shifts from minor to major, the tone actually darkens as the orchestral introduction droops in sorrow. The piano sings a romantically melancholy song, which ebbs and flows in intensity and passion. Midway in this movement comes a faster, feathery dance led by the piano; listen to the woodwind solos that accompany it for they are singing a cleverly altered version of movement one's chant theme. The pianist abruptly dismisses the dark mood, and with a burst of virtuosity sails directly into the finale.
Rachmaninoff loved the sound of Russian church bells, and we hear their tintinnabulation ringing in the piano as the finale opens. As in movement one, the second theme is first presented rhythmically, in thick, aggressively syncopated piano chords. Then it is transformed into the big soaring tune we wait for in every Rachmaninoff work. A series of variations on the bell theme, featuring coruscating pianism of extreme difficulty, takes the place of a development section. The concerto's final drive begins with a roaring march for the piano, spurred on by low strings. Rachmaninoff piles excitement upon excitement — accelerating tempos, bone-crunching virtuosity for the soloist, and a refulgent apotheosis on his big tune — to captivate his first American audience and all those to follow.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.
En Saga, opus 9
Born in Hämeenlinna, Finland, December 8, 1875; died in Jarvenpää, Finland, September 20, 1957
Jean Sibelius’ En Saga (“A Legend”) is a tone poem without a story. Or at least without a story that has ever been revealed, for its composer kept a resolute silence on the subject matter, only in the 1940s revealing this tantalizing clue: “En Saga is the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time, and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely. It is for this reason that I find all literary explanations quite alien.”
Exactly what those “painful experiences” were, we can only guess at, for outwardly the year of 1892, when the then only 26-year-old composer wrote this powerful symphonic work, was an exceptionally happy one. Sibelius had just premiered his first major work, the Kullervo Symphony inspired by the Finnish epic saga known as the Kalevala, to a very warm reception and was beginning to be recognized as Finland’s musical bard. And on the strength of Kullervo’s success, he had persuaded the parents of his fiancée, Aino Järnefelt, to allow them to marry that June. (Aino would prove to be an ideal composer’s wife, and the marriage would last more than 60 years, until Sibelius’ death at age 91.) Perhaps he was remembering the difficult period he’d spent in Vienna in 1890–91 when he had been forced to give up his dream of being a concert violinist.
En Saga launched his line of orchestral tone poems that rivaled his seven symphonies in technical skill and exceeded them in imaginative daring. It was premiered under Sibelius’ baton in Helsinki on February 16, 1893, but was not really a success. The composer put it away for almost a decade until his close friend, the remarkable pianist-composer Ferrucio Busoni, invited him to conduct it in 1902 in Berlin with the exalted Berlin Philharmonic. Such an important showcase compelled Sibelius to return to the drawing board and extensively overhaul En Saga, both shortening it and enriching it with the more sophisticated skills he’d since acquired while writing his First and Second symphonies. Premiered in Berlin on November 2, 1902, it is this final version that we’ll hear tonight.
The work’s stunning narrative power calls upon each audience member to devise his/her own story. Although Sibelius denied that the Kalevala had had any influence on the conception of En Saga, its haunting introduction indeed suggests an epic adventure, set in some long-ago, primeval era. Out of a mist of string arpeggios and a rocking motive in horns and bassoons emerges a primitive folkloric idea in cackling oboes and other woodwinds. Eventually, a darkly heroic theme takes shape, first muttered grimly by bassoons and then proclaimed more warmly and expansively by horns.
The music gradually accelerates to Allegro and springs into action. Soon, we hear a vigorously rhythmic melody sung quietly by the violas; athletic and resolute in nature, it will play the most important thematic role in the tone poem. It comes attached to a smoother companion idea in the violins that will also reveal developmental possibilities. In this harmonically daring work, the key has already roamed very far from its A-minor opening and is now in E-flat major on the way to a new C-minor home base. The rhythmic theme is succeeded by a virile-warrior theme in the violins that strides out on emphatic repeated notes and soon finds its natural voice in the snarling tones of trombone-dominated brass. This theme, too, has a major role to play. Playful dance music led by flutes completes the parade of themes.
The return of the rhythmic action theme moves the music in its developmental phase. Listen here for an uncanny passage of strings being played tremulously on the bridge of the instrument (sul ponticello); it is but one example of Sibelius’ adventurous experiments with his instruments. Indeed, Sibelius’ idiosyncratic orchestral voice — with its austere strings, keening wild-bird woodwinds, and darkly coruscating brass — is already on full display in this very early work.
The cackling oboes introduce an exciting return to the opening music as we hear the introduction’s heroic theme shouted out more confidently — and in a faster tempo — by the horns. This all builds to a mighty climax, driven by the bass drum. But suddenly, a chill falls over the music, and all is hushed. In an extraordinary coda in the key of E-flat minor — a planet away from En Saga’s opening in A minor! — the music closes enigmatically, with a solo clarinet whispering the heroic theme and the cellos muttering the rhythm of the action theme in a fade to silence.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, percussion, and strings.
Symphony No. 7 in C Major
As Jean Sibelius grew older and his symphonic craft more sophisticated, composing actually became more difficult for him. As he struggled to complete his seventh and last symphony in the winter of 1924, he wrote: "I am on the wrong rails. Alcohol to calm my nerves and state of mind. How dreadful old age is for a composer! Things don't go as quickly as they used to, and self-criticism grows to impossible proportions." He composed through the night, and his wife, Aino, would find him in the morning slumped over the score at the dining-room table with a bottle of liquor beside him.
Sibelius suffered from black depressions throughout his life, and heavy alcoholic consumption only compounded the problem. Just two years after he completed the Seventh Symphony, these demons plus nagging self-criticism of everything he wrote would prematurely silence him, even though he lived on for another 31 years to the venerable age of 91.
Despite the struggle, the Seventh Symphony turned out to be one of his most extraordinary works, taking his unique approach to constructing a symphony to its ultimate level. Sibelius had long since rejected the traditional symphonic structure of four movements following conventional forms such as sonata, scherzo, and rondo. Instead he believed the symphony was like a river and that each river created its own shape. "The movement of the river water is the flow of the musical ideas and the river-bed that they form is the symphonic structure."
Thus the Seventh Symphony emerged as one great movement moving in waves of accelerating and decelerating tempos. It grew organically through the evolution of the most elemental musical ideas. In fact, there is only one true theme here, proclaimed three times by solo trombone and other brass and serving as mighty pillars supporting and shaping the Symphony's structure. And Sibelius uses the brass section only for this theme; otherwise he concentrates on strings and woodwinds, setting their very different colors in opposition rather than blending them. Like many of Sibelius' greatest works, there is an underlying feeling of the human being standing in wonder before a big, powerful, and unknowable natural world: Nature at its most awesome.
The symphony begins with very basic musical ingredients: a rumble of the timpani and a slow scale in the strings (scale patterns will underlie most of the melodic material) ascending to a fateful, mysterious harmony. A fluttering-birds motive, which will also be very important, appears in the woodwinds. Rising and falling scales crisscross, and the woodwind birds cry out with forlorn power. Now a magnificent, warm-toned passage for divided strings expands the scales of the opening into rich counterpoint. This culminates in the first appearance of the epic trombone-brass theme, which seems to grow naturally out of the scale patterns, in the home key of C major.
The tempo gradually accelerates and the musical texture becomes lighter as woodwinds and strings alternate in an airy dance. Eventually strong, whirling winds begin to blow in the strings, and the tempo decelerates back to Adagio for the second appearance of the brass theme, now dramatically extended and in darker C minor.
After this heroic music fades, strings and woodwinds begin a dancing acceleration to Allegro molto moderato and music of summer-day joy and lyricism. The swirling-birds woodwind motive of the Symphony's opening is the melodic source of this idyll. The tempo gradually builds to a throbbing Presto and then imperceptibly slides back to Adagio for the final and grandest appearance of the epic brass theme, now back in C major. In the radiantly expectant closing measures of this utterly unique symphony, the home chord of C major is only reached at the very last moment.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008