This blog visits a new album scheduled for release on April 14 that features works for piano and orchestra by Sergei Rachmaninov (2023 marks the 150th anniversary of his birth). The solo pianist is Boris Giltburg, a seasoned Naxos artist noted not only for his outstanding musicianship and technical finesse (witness the numerous glowing reviews he unfailingly receives), but also for his presentation skills in bringing to life the works he performs, both on social media and, as is the case with this latest album, his production of the album’s booklet notes, which reflect authority and insight. The catalogue number of the release is 8.574528.
I’ll be dipping into Boris’ observations about the three works on this programme: Rachmaninov’s First and Fourth Piano Concertos, and the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. That latter work, together with Rachmaninov’s Second and Third Piano Concertos, receive significantly more attention in recording studios and concert halls than the First and Fourth Concertos; but it would come as no surprise if this wonderful recording by Boris (together with the Brussels Philharmonic under conductor Vassily Sinaisky) proceeds to significantly raise the stature of those perceived poor relations.
Rachmaninov completed his First Piano Concerto when he was barely 18 years old, giving the first performance a year later. Although it received further performances in this original form, it clearly weighed on Rachmaninov’s mind that the score was in need of some attention, which it finally received in his 1917 revision, the one normally played nowadays. Rachmaninov pulled no punches on himself when contemplating the matter, writing to a friend in 1908:
“Now tomorrow I’m planning to take up my First Concerto and look through it, and then decide how much toil and time a new version would take, and whether it’s worth bothering with at all. I am so often asked about this Concerto, and this Concerto is so horrible in its current form – this is the main thing – that I would love to deal with it and, if possible, bring everything in it into a decent shape. Though, of course, much will have to be written anew, as the orchestration is even worse than the music. So, tomorrow I will decide this question, and I would like to decide it positively.”
Boris’ observations about the revised version include the following:
“Comparing the two versions is fascinating, and shows Rachmaninov’s tremendous compositional growth in the intervening years. The melodies are identical, but almost nothing else remains from the original! … Rachmaninov simplified and clarified the structure, cutting multiple sections. He reworked the orchestration, remaining within the sound world of the original, but filling it with new colours and adding much needed transparency… The finale was basically composed anew – most of the muscular, spiky, fiery music of the outer sections did not exist in the original version.”
Let’s put those comments into context by hearing a couple of extracts. First, the opening of the contemplative second movement.
And secondly, the opening stretch of the finale.
Finale: Allegro vivace
Rachmaninov had an even tougher time establishing the Fourth Piano Concerto as a work worthy of entering his hall of fame. First performed in Philadelphia in the United States in 1927, it was not at all well received by audience and critics alike, niggles including the length of the piece and the fact that the orchestra was omnipresent. Sadly, success evaded the work throughout Rachmaninov’s lifetime. The revisions made before the work’s publication in 1928 did little to improve its fortunes, so Rachmaninov withdrew the work until his final revision of the work in 1941. Boris Giltburg writes:
“I am very happy to see it start coming into its own in recent years. For me it occupies a unique place in Rachmaninov’s output, with a musical ‘flavour’ unlike any of his other works … From the three versions, the best in my eyes is the last – the leanest and most focused. I do not consider the harsh critical response to the original version to be justified, but I do feel the changes made by Rachmaninov improved the concerto … I would call this concerto, for a lack of a better word, rhapsodic – a captivating tale, freely-narrated, with a somewhat vaguely defined outline, whereby the experience of listening is simultaneously an engaging experience of discovering the shape of the work we are listening to.”
In light of that observation, here’s how the central section of the first movement unfolds.
I. Allegro vivace (alla breve)
Boris’ comments about the finale include the following:
“The reworked finale is the most fragmented movement of the three … Rachmaninov writes a prolonged coda, which contains three threads loosely linking the finale with the first movement. First, the very opening of the concerto seems to make a return. Then, the coda builds up to a climax which mirrors that of the first movement – perhaps the most important link, as these two climaxes tower over the concerto like mountain peaks, echoing each other across a large divide. And finally, the concluding passages in the piano are built on two sequences of descending scales, to match the ascending scale motif which opened the concerto, before the triumphant G major finish.”
We pick up his performance of the finale in the approach to that allusion to the concerto’s opening.
III. Allegro vivace
Finally to the work that’s a piano concerto in all but name – Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, written in 1934, and reflecting a happier period in the composer’s life, when the will to compose was strong and the tug of his Russian homeland roots assuaged. Boris comments:
“It is a blast of a piece, its electrifying rhythmical energy working alongside the irresistible catchiness of the source material – Niccolò Paganini’s famous Caprice No. 24 for violin solo. The Rhapsody is in fact a set of 24 variations on Paganini’s theme, with the briefest of introductions, and with the first variation preceding the theme: it outlines the theme’s salient notes, like a melody’s skeleton without any connecting material.”
Here’s that opening section comprising the introduction, first variation, the theme, and variations 2–4.
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, opening section
“From there on, Rachmaninov takes us on a white-knuckle ride, with an underlying current of danger throughout: as if something dark or even demonic lurked just outside the corner of our eye. And yet, the overriding sense of the music is fun – to which I attribute a significant part of the Rhapsody’s popular success.”
At Variation 7, Rachmaninov introduces a second theme – the Dies irae mediaeval chant with which Rachmaninov was obsessed throughout his career.
Variations 7, 8 and 9
Before ploughing onwards to a thrilling (and witty) conclusion, there’s one moment of repose – the celebrated Variation 18, the longest in the set, with which we end this blog. Boris concludes the commentary:
“The glorious Variation XVIII [is] ingeniously derived from the inversion of Paganini’s theme. ‘This one is for my agent’, Rachmaninov said, half-jokingly, but if we disregard for a moment the kitschy baggage which this variation (somewhat unfortunately) carries upon its back, we will find one of the most beautiful, tender and soul-stirring moments to have ever come from Rachmaninov’s mind and heart. Surrounded by the unsentimental muscularity of the Rhapsody, the variation shines even brighter – both in itself, and as a throwback to a different era, bathed in memory’s golden light.”
(This last audio extract is also available to hear and download on several streaming platforms. Details may be found by following this link.)
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 – Études-tableaux, Op. 33
Boris Giltburg • Royal Scottish National Orchestra • Carlos Miguel Prieto
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 – Variations on a Theme of Corelli
Boris Giltburg • Royal Scottish National Orchestra • Carlos Miguel Prieto