INKPOT#69 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No.1 – An Inktroduction
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)The First Piano Concerto
An Inktroduction by Soo Kian Hing
Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto, of his five (including the Paganini Variations), is regarded as the most conservative in terms of structural construction and development. Which is to be expected, for it was written during the composer’s graduating year (1890 – 1891) from the Moscow Conservatoire, which was actually one year early owing to Rachmaninov’s confidence in his compositions (indeed, he graduated with the only Great Gold Medal of his year, and which was only the third one so far to be given by the Conservatoire).
There are introductions, developments, modulations and recapitulations, and the piece is modelled rather more closely to the symmetrical format of a classical concerto. Many sequences are reminiscent of the concertos of Schumann, Chopin, and of course Tchaikovsky, whom the young Rachmaninov idolised. Academic research into original manuscripts have traced, through this work’s major revision in 1917, the composer’s developing astuteness in composition. This helped to condense much of the initially over-embellished keyboard writing and pack more vision and punch into the work, without losing any of the freshness and youthful vitality that succumbed to a more wistful melancholy in his other piano concertos.
However, the romantic richness and pungent chromaticism so distinctive of Rachmaninov’s established style is already evident from the outset: the brassy dramatic opening fanfare is a series of chromatic octaves. This introduces the listener to the first theme: a yearning line crossing many keys in an arching series of unconventional chromatic progression, a mark of Rachmaninov’s melodic invention.
The melody is brought through many modulations and transformations, developing from a simple romantic line to a fleeting gush of wind, to fleeting references in the salon style favoured by Rachmaninov in his smaller early pieces. The highlight of the first movement is, of course, the heavyweight cadenza near the end, where the piano leads from a heavy transition to a quieter section, building up with successively massive chords, finally until the first theme returns. Unleashing itself in the tonic, augmented by powerful gruff chords, the theme blasts off with a fierce conviction. Not long after, the melody breaks up into shorter runs with the orchestra joining in, and the first movement seemingly drops to a close with a sudden flap of the curtain.
The second movement opens with a languid anticipation, and the piano enters as if caught from the middle of a conversation. But once the section starts proper, a romantic nocturne appears, and in the Rachmaninov tradition slowly meanders through another chromatic progression. With soulful strings and a rippling piano in the central section, the listener can literally wallow in the drunken pools of timeless romance.
This reverie is all too soon broken by a violent gust of wind that opens the third movement. The piano leads in the scampering theme, joined by the orchestra, and runs on and on through some brief lyrical interjections, until the orchestra settles back into a romantic melody, elaborated by the piano playing alongside, giving this movement a change of mood. After a brief pause, the whirlwind returns and the piano and orchestral instruments play light-footed catch around the opening theme. Having waltzed through some foot-tapping sequences, the coda starts with a series of tutti chords. Piano and orchestra progress up the scale, ebbing and flowing in intensity with each progression, until the work ultimately finishes in a blinding florish of virtuosity velocity.
—– This issue’s recommended recording: Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943) Piano Concerto no.1 and no.2 / Four Etudes-Tableaux 1. Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1 I. Vivace II. Andante III. Allegro vivace 2. Concer to for Piano and Orchestra no.2 in C minor, Op.18 I. Moderato II. Allegro sostenuto III. Allegro scherzando Four Etudes-Tableaux 3. Op.33 no.6 in E flat minor 4. Op.39 no.3 in F sharp minor 5. Op.39 no.4 in B minor 6. Op.39 no.9 in D Soloist: Sviatoslav Richter (piano) Orchestra: 1. Grand Symphony Orchestra of State Radio (Op.1) 2. Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (Op.18) Conductor: Kurt Sanderling Label: Revelation CD catalog number: RV 10064 Timing: 73min 51sec Other remarks: recorded 18 February 1955 (Op.1), 18 February 1959 (Op.18), 3 March 1966 (Etudes-Tableaux) REVIEW: Sviatoslav Richter (1915 – ) is a renowned pianist of the Russian school — he with the dramatic heavy octave chords, melting romantic disposition, coupled with lightning-like virtuosity, making up a potent explosive tempered only by the intellect of his interpretation. Although his highly individual interpretations have led to accusations of being unpredictable and controversial, this reading of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no.1 is highly vibrant and energetic without compromising musicality and soul. Not as melodramatic as Ashkenazy in his Decca recording, Richter provides a heavy Russian stoicity and gruff confidence, countered by easy silvery runs in the faster passages, and a natural lyricism in the romantic sections. Given the somewhat dated sound, this budget-priced recording makes a good introduction to one of Rachmaninov’s lesser-heard concertos, played by a pianist who commands some of the highest accolades in the musical world.
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