RACHMANINOV: Piano Trios Nos. 1 2
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Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor • Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 9
The Russian composer and pianist Sergey Rachmaninov was born in 1873, the son of aristocratic parents. His father's improvidence, however, led to a change in the fortunes of the family when increasing debts necessitated the sale of one estate after another, followed by removal to an apartment in St Petersburg. It was there that Rachmaninov, at the age of nine, entered the Conservatory on a scholarship. The subsequent separation of his parents and his own failure in general subject examinations brought about his move to Moscow, where he was accepted as a pupil of Nikolay Zverev, a pupil of John Field's pupil Dubucque and of Adolf von Henselt. Rachmaninov lodged in Zverev's house, where the necessary discipline was instilled, providing him with the basis of a subsequently formidable technique. In 1888 he entered the Conservatory as a pupil of his cousin Alexander Ziloti, a former pupil of Zverev and later of Liszt. Rachmaninov's other teachers at the Conservatory were Sergey Taneyev, a former pupil of Nikolay Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, with whom he had studied counterpoint, and Rimsky-Korsakov's former pupil Anton Arensky, Rachmaninov's teacher for fugue, harmony and free composition. In Moscow, as time went on, he won considerable success, both as a performer and as a composer, after graduating in the piano class of the Conservatory in 1891 and in composition the following year. In the first decades of the new century he seemed to have secured for himself a strong position in Russian musical life, distinguishing himself also as a conductor.
The Revolution of 1917 brought many changes. While some musicians remained in Russia, others chose temporary or permanent exile abroad. Rachmaninov took the latter course and thereafter found himself obliged to rely on his remarkable gifts as a pianist for the support of himself and his family, at the same time continuing his work as a conductor. Composition inevitably had to take second place and it was principally as a pianist, one of the greatest of his time, that he became known to audiences. Concert-tours in America proved lucrative and he established a publishing enterprise in Paris, where he lived for some time, before having a house built for himself and his family at Hertenstein, near Lucerne. In 1939 he left Europe, finally settling at Beverly Hills, where he died in 1943.
Rachmaninov was still a student when, at the age of nineteen, he wrote his first Trio élégiaque in G minor, a work in a single, sonata-form movement that seems not to have been inspired by any particular melancholy event. Tchaikovsky, however, ten years earlier, had used his Piano Trio to mourn the death of Nikolay Rubinstein, perhaps suggesting to Rachmaninov a model for his own attempt at the form. The Trio élégiaque was first performed at a concert in Moscow at the end of January 1892, with the violinist David Sergeyevich Kreyn, concertmaster of the Bolshoy ballet orchestra, and the cellist Anatoly Andreyevich Brandukov, former pupil and protégé of Tchaikovsky. Marked Lento lugubre at the start, violin and cello provide a sparse accompaniment to the piano statement of the first subject, which is later allowed to the cello and then to the violin, before a transition to the piano statement of the second subject, marked Più vivo. There is considerable use of the opening figure of the first subject in the central development, and it is the cello that introduces the return of the theme in the recapitulation. The work ends with a solemn Alla marcia funebre, in which elements of the same theme return for the last time. It is natural that the piano, Rachmaninov's own instrument, should occupy a leading place in the movement, while the writing for violin and cello lacks something of the idiomatic assurance of the piano part. Nevertheless the work is effective enough by any standards and still more remarkable when heard as the achievement of a nineteen-year-old, at the verge of a brilliant career.
The second piano trio, the Trio élégiaque in D minor, Op. 9, was written in response to news of the death of Tchaikovsky in 1893 and first performed at the end of January 1894 by the violinist Yuly Eduardovich Konyus, whose son Boris was to marry Rachmaninov's daughter Tatyana, and the cellist Anatoly Brandukov, with Rachmaninov. It is headed 'à la mémoire d'un grand artiste' (In Memory of a Great Artist). Rachmaninov revised the work in 1907, notably removing the alternative instrumentation which had included a possible harmonium for the statement of the theme of the slow movement. The trio overtly follows the pattern of Tchaikovsky's elegiac tribute to Nikolay Rubinstein, but with the addition of a final movement.
The first movement opens with the piano in melancholy vein, the minor chord followed by four descending chromatic notes. Above this the cello and then the violin offer their own lament, as the music gathers pace, leading, after a brief piano passage and an elegiac cello phrase, to the Allegro moderato second subject. The cello introduces the development with the characteristic opening figure of the secondary material, over more florid arpeggios from the piano, which goes on to develop this theme further into a mood of gentle sadness. An outburst of emotion is linked to the recapitulation by a subdued Andante, before the return of a modified version of the piano opening, now complemented by muted strings. It is the violin that, instead of the cello, provides the link to the second subject. The first movement has brought fleeting echoes of Tchaikovsky. The theme of the variations that form the second movement is, at least, akin to the theme of the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Trio élégiaque. It is, more directly, associated with a theme from Rachmaninov's The Rock, which Tchaikovsky had promised to conduct in 1894. The F major theme is followed by an Allegro variation, then a Lento for piano alone. The third variation is marked Allegro scherzando, the lively piano part accompanied largely by plucked chords from the strings, and it is the piano that holds the thematic material in the fourth. Muted strings start the fifth variation, with thematic interest centred on the cello, the piano intervening, before the violin presents a fragment of the material, followed by the cello. A vivid Allegro vivace leads to a meditative D minor seventh variation, followed by a final D flat major version of the material that allows the cello and then the violin to express their sorrow. The movement ends with a brief return of the theme, fragmentarily offered by the violin and cello. The dramatic opening of the short final movement allows the piano to exploit the chordal textures that are a feature of Rachmaninov's piano writing and an outpouring of grief, thematically derived from the first movement, leads to the return of the elegiac opening of the trio, with the strings finally muted and the piano offering a very subdued conclusion.