Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3 (Biret, Polish Nrso, Wit) (Sergey Rachmaninov) (Antoni Wit/ Idil Biret/ Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.554376)
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Piano Concerto No. 2in C minor, Op. 18
Piano Concerto No. 3in D minor, Op. 30
Sergey VasilyevichRachmaninov was among those Russian composers who chose exile rather thanremain in Russia after the Revolution of 1917, the consequent civil turmoiland, as it turned out, the years of despotic oppression that followed. He wasborn at Semyonovo in 1873 into a family of strong military traditions on hismother's side and more remotely on his father's. A tendency to extravagance haddepleted his father's fortunes and made it necessary to sell off much of theirland and dissipating his wife's dowry. As a result of this, the childhood ofRachmaninov was largely spent at the one remaining family estate at Oneg, nearNovgorod. The reduction in family circumstances had at least one happierresult: when it became necessary to sell this estate and move to St Petersburg,the expense of educating the boy for the Imperial service proved too great.
Rachmaninov could make use, instead, of his musical gifts, entering StPetersburg Conservatory at the age of nine with a scholarship.
Showing no particularindustry as a student and lacking the attention he needed at home, in 1885Rachmaninov failed all his general subject examinations at the Conservatory andthere were threats that his scholarship would be withdrawn. His mother, nowseparated from her husband and responsible for her son's welfare, arranged, onthe advice of the well known pianist Alexander Siloti, that he should move toMoscow to study with Zverev, a teacher known to impose the strictestdiscipline. In Zverev's house, however uncongenial the rigorous routine,he acquired much of his phenomenal ability as a pianist, while broadening hismusical understanding by attending concerts in the city. At the age of fifteenhe became a pupil of Zverev's former student Siloti, a musician who had alsostudied with Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Rubinstein and, thereafter, with Liszt.
Rachmaninov had lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Sergey Taneyev andArensky, and his growing interest in composition led to a quarrel with Zverevand removal to the house of his relations, the Satins.
In 1891 Rachmaninovcompleted his piano studies at the Conservatory and the composition of his PianoConcerto 1. The following year he graduated from the composition class andcomposed the notorious Prelude in C sharp minor, a piece that was tohaunt him by its excessive popularity. His early career brought initial successas a composer, halted by the failure of his first symphony at its firstperformance in 1897, when it was conducted badly by Glazunov, apparently drunkat the time, and then reviewed in the cruellest terms by Cesar Cui whodescribed it as a student attempt to depict in music the seven plagues ofEgypt. Rachmaninov busied himself as a conductor, accepting an engagement inthis capacity with Mamontov's Moscow Private Russian Opera Company. He was onlyable to return to composition after a course of treatment with Dr Nikolay Dahl,a believer in the efficacy of hypnotism. The immediate result was the second ofhis four piano concertos, a work that has proved to be one of the mostimmediately popular of all he wrote.
The years before theRussian revolution brought continued successful activity as a composer and as aconductor. In 1902 Rachmaninov married Natalya Satina and went on to pursue acareer that was bringing him increasing international fame. There were journeysabroad and a busy professional life, from which summer holidays at the estateof Ivanovka, which he finally acquired from the Satins in 1910, providedrespite. During the war, however depressing the circumstances, he continued hisconcert engagements, not being required for military service, as he hadanticipated. All this was interrupted by the abdication of the Tsar in 1917 andthe beginning of the Revolution.
Rachmaninov leftRussia in 1917; from then until his death in Beverly Hills in 1943, he wasobliged to rely largely on performance for a living. Now there was, inconsequence, much less time for composition, as he undertook demandingconcert-tours, during which he dazzled audiences in Europe and America with hisremarkable powers as a pianist. His house at Ivanovka was destroyed in theRussian civil war and in 1931, the year of his Variations on a Theme ofCorelli, his music was banned in Russia, to be permitted once again twoyears later. He spent much time in America, where there were lucrativeconcert-tours, but established a music publishing-house in Paris and built forhimself a villa near Lucerne, where he completed his Rhapsody on a Theme ofPaganini in 1934 and his Third Symphony a year later. In 1939 heleft Europe, to spend his final years in the United States.
Rachmaninov wrote his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor in 1900 and1901, dedicating it to Dr Nikolay Dahl, The second and third movements of thismost popular of all romantic concertos were completed in the summer of 1900 andthe first movement in the following year. In November 1901 it was performed inMoscow under the direction of Siloti, with the composer as soloist, and wasreceived with the greatest enthusiasm. The work has retained its position inconcert repertoire, although it has at the same time had a Jess fortunateinfluence on lesser works that have nothing of the innovative inspiration oftheir model.
The first movement of the concerto opens with a series of dramaticchords from the soloist, an introduction to the first theme, proposed by thestrings, accompanied by piano arpeggios. The second subject, quite properly inE flat major, is introduced by a phrase on the viola, before its statement bythe soloist, rhapsodic in style, to be further developed in a central section,before a great dynamic climax and the return of the first subject, now marked Maestoso.
Calm returns for the orchestra to return to the second subject, now with anair of intense nostalgia, before the final coda. In the slow movement theorchestra moves from C minor to the remoter key of E major, to be joined by thesoloist in music of characteristic figuration, with the principal themeintroduced by flute and clarinet before being taken up by the soloist. There isa central section of greater animation and mounting tension, leading to apowerful cadenza, followed by the return of the principal theme. With scarcelya pause the orchestra embarks on the final Allegro scherzando, providingthe necessary modulation to the original key. A piano cadenza leads to thefirst theme, while a second theme, marked Moderato, is announced by theoboe and violas. Both are treated rhapsodically by the soloist, the secondtheme offering a romantic contrast to the more energetic rhythm of the first.
In form the movement is a rondo, with the first theme largely keeping itsoriginal key and the second providing harmonic variety in different keys, thefirst making its second appearance in contrapuntal imitation. The concerto endswith a grandiose apotheosis of the second theme in a triumphant C major.
Rachmaninov gave the first performance of his technically demanding PianoConcerto No. 3 in D minor in New York on 28th November, 1909, havingapparently practised the solo part during the sea-crossing to America on adummy keyboard. He had written the work at Ivanovka during the summer andtowards the end of his life refused to play the work, which he preferred toentrust to the younger pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Walter Gieseking,surprising diffidence in a player of his distinction. The first performanceunder Damrosch was followed by a Carnegie Hall performance in January 1910,under