Program Notes – Rachmaninoff’s 2nd

Rochester, NY, native Dan Welcher is one of his generation’s most-performed composers. A Celebratory Overture was commissioned in 2016 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of KMFA, an independent classical radio station—yes, a few of these still exist!—in Austin, Texas. The opening fanfare is a four-note motto derived from the station’s call letters: K becomes C, M becomes G, plus F and A. This figure is then turned upside down and reworked as a gentle melody. After an eerie string glissando and a short pause, the overture becomes an impatient radio listener, scanning through channels. Snippets of drive-time favorites such as Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Pachelbel’s Canon, The William Tell Overture, and many more, including bits from three Beethoven symphonies, are brilliantly interwoven.

Often, being original in art means turning convention on its head. In 1807, when Beethoven premiered his Fourth Piano Concerto, the customs of the concerto genre were ingrained in performers and audiences, as those of the rom-com are in us. Listeners waited to hear when the soloist would enter; and when the soloist stopped playing, they anticipated their return. It was only a matter of time before Beethoven tossed this protocol aside completely.

And so, the audience at the premiere of the Fourth Concerto would have been shocked to hear this work open with soft, contemplative solo piano. After this gentle but altogether revolutionary statement, the orchestra responds nervously—and from three football fields away, harmonically (they answer in B major, whereas the piano had introduced itself in G). Soon however, the second violins set up an oscillating rhythm and the piece begins to settle into itself. Of his five mature concertos, this one is Beethoven’s most serene and poetic, and the one which lives the most in a world of fantasy.

As distinctive as the opening of its first movement is, the second movement is what truly sets Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto apart. The whole thing is an extended rhetorical contest between a threatening, pessimistic string chorus and the noble piano. Except for four hair-raising bars near the end, the pianist is instructed to keep the soft pedal depressed. The generally bouncy finale brings some respite from all this struggle.

“He was a six-and-a-half foot scowl,” said Igor Stravinsky of his compatriot Sergei Rachmaninoff, and it’s true that there are very few photographs of the Russian piano virtuoso and composer seeming glad. Despite his enviable career conducting and performing his own music across Russia and Europe and, for the last half of his life, in the US, there were plenty of things to worry Rachmaninoff, even in the years before World War I and the Russian Revolution. His childhood was marked by the disastrous squandering of his family’s considerable fortune at the hands of his feckless father, the loss of family home after family home, the death of his sister in a typhoid outbreak, and his parent’s separation. Piano possibly saved him; failing all other subjects, he was accepted into a highly competitive but ruthlessly strict piano studio in Moscow, where he also began to study counterpoint. He wound up graduating a year early and with the highest honors. Success piled up: his first piano concerto, his first opera (which even Tchaikovsky praised), successful tours and his London debut. But when his first real setback came, whatever fragile confidence Rachmaninoff had dared to harbor collapsed. This was the disastrous premiere of his first symphony. One reviewer described it as something written in a conservatory in hell. Rachmaninoff would not attempt another for ten years, and only after a great struggle to break his creative block. Friends insisted he see noted psychiatrist Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who specialized in post-hypnotic suggestion, and gradually the floodgates re-opened. (Rachmaninoff dedicated his second piano concerto to Dahl.) After awhile Rachmaninoff felt confident enough to take up the prospect of a symphony again. Its premiere in January 1908 was a triumph.

The first movement begins with a low strings motto which will crop up throughout this lengthy symphony and contribute to a sense of interconnectedness, punctuating the many passages of utterly sumptuous romantic melody. We find Rachmaninoff all smiles in the bright and vivacious Scherzo which follows, yet there in the middle is another one of those smoldering love tunes. Even this is overtopped by the ravishing passion of the slow movement, however. These thirteen minutes of music alone built concert halls around the world (and have accompanied countless hi-fi, fireside, bearskin-rug scenes). The finale turns its attention at first to dancing and jubilation. Rachmaninoff crafts yet another irresistible “big tune” for this movement, and it is this which closes the symphony, in tall octaves across the orchestra.


© Jamey Lamar 2018