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Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30

Ⅰ Allegro ma non tanto
Ⅱ Intermezzo: Adagio
Ⅲ Finale: Alla breve

Sergei Rachmaninov: Born at Oneg (an estate near Novgorod), April 1, 1873; Died in Beverly Hills, California, March 28, 1943

In 1909, the 36-year-old Rachmaninov was at the height of his career as composer and pianist. It was time to conquer America. For this important visit he composed his Third Piano Concerto, which he wrote during the summer months at his country estate, Ivanovka. In October he set sail for the New World but, not having had time to learn the piano part, he resorted to practicing on a “dumb” (silent) piano he took on board with his baggage. The concerto was greeted warmly, though not rapturously, at its premiere on November 28, 1909, with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony Orchestra. As soloist Rachmaninov also performed the concerto with Gustav Mahler conducting the New York Philharmonic, on which occasion Rachmaninov was enormously impressed with Mahler’s abilities as a conductor.

The Third Concerto proudly carries a reputation for being one of the most difficult, expansive, brilliant and romantic in the repertory of piano concertos. It is also one of Rachmaninov’s longest and structurally most complex orchestral works. Many of the concerto’s melodic ideas have their seeds in the opening motif. In addition, there is a strong interrelation between the movements, as material in each movement recurs in varied form in succeeding movements. In mood and style, the music is thoroughly grounded in the nineteenth-century Russian romantic tradition.

The Concerto opens with a disarmingly simple theme. Rachmaninov said that it “wrote itself … I wanted to ‘sing’ the melody on the piano, as a singer would sing it.” However, a musicologist-friend of the composer, Joseph Yasser, believed the theme was derived from an ancient monastic chant of the Russian Orthodox Church, a claim Rachmaninov denied. The second subject consists of a gently playful staccato idea for the orchestra answered by the soloist, from which evolves a broadly lyrical theme in the piano. The development section begins as did the opening, with the soloist becoming increasingly predominant. A cadenza of prodigious difficulty and enormous proportions contains within it the movement’s recapitulation, a most unorthodox procedure. An alternate view holds that the recapitulation consists only of the brief epilogue beginning with the restatement of the opening bars of the movement, shared by piano and orchestra. Musicologist Michael Steinberg consolidates the two positions by observing that “the leisurely singing of the melody leads with extraordinary compressions and encapsulations to a final page in which fragments of themes ghost by in a startling amalgam of epigram and dream.”

The slow movement reveals Rachmaninov at his most melancholic, rhapsodic and nostalgic. The languid principal theme is reworked though a series of variations, a simple enough procedure in view of the structural complexities of the outer movements. This fact, as well as the generally more relaxed mood, may well have been responsible for the movement’s title “Intermezzo.” Near the end is a faster, scherzando passage whose woodwind lines are melodically related to the first theme of the first movement. The darkly melancholic mood of the closing pages is abruptly banished by a brilliant flourish, and the third movement is launched without pause.

Themes as well as rhythmic patterns of this expansive finale are largely derived from or related to material of the first movement. The finale abounds in energetic rhythms, bravura flourishes, scintillating passage work and brilliant effects for soloist and orchestra alike, although Rachmaninov does not fail to include a characteristically lyric, soaring theme as well. The long coda provides a fitting conclusion to a grandiose concerto.

Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, op. 44

Ⅰ Lento - Allegro moderato
Ⅱ Adagio ma non troppo - Allegro vivace
Ⅲ Allegro

Sergei Rachmaninov: Born at Oneg (an estate near Novgorod), April 1, 1873; Died in Beverly Hills, California, March 28, 1943

Rachmaninov’s three symphonies span nearly his entire creative life. The First was premiered in 1895, a few days before the composer’s 22nd birthday. It was such a dismal failure that he forbade further performances during his lifetime. The Second was written ten years later and became an instant success whose popularity has never waned. Rachmaninov vowed this would be his last symphony, but near the end of his life he produced a Third, whose public acceptance lies somewhere between the general rejection of the First and the enthusiastic embrace of the Second.

Rachmaninov wrote his Third Symphony in 1935 and 1936 while living in Switzerland. It had been nearly two decades since he had left his native Russia (in 1917), and many of his works written during the years abroad lacked, in many people’s opinion, that quality of “Russian-ness” found in earlier works. But the Third Symphony was an exception. Lawrence Gilman, the distinguished New York critic, wrote of it: “This Symphony is characterized by a profusion of those sweeping cantabile phrases, darkened by moods of melancholy brooding and impassioned stress, which are typical of Rachmaninov’s instrumental creations. Somber, lyrical, defiant, it is a work wholly representative of the Slavic genius and of Mr. Rachmaninov in particular.”

The first performance went to the orchestra Rachmaninov had come to think of as his favorite – Philadelphia, where he had made his American conducting debut in 1909 and where scarcely a year went by without his appearing there either at the piano or on the podium. No fewer than four world premieres and several American premieres of his works went to that orchestra. Leopold Stokowski conducted the first performance of the Third Symphony on November 6, 1936.

The symphony opens with a motto idea – scarcely a theme as it merely oscillates gently among three notes – but Rachmaninov’s mastery of orchestral color throughout the symphony is manifest in these very opening bars: the unison combination of a single clarinet, a single cello muted and a single horn hand-stopped. This motto serves, in the words of biographer Patrick Piggott, “not so much to make dramatic, brassy intrusions, (though on occasion it can do this to good effect), as to remind us sometimes by no more than a quietly hinted reference, that our destiny is inescapable and that however persuasive human eloquence may be, fate will have the last, inevitable word. All very much in the Russian tradition.” The two principal subjects of the movement are both lyrical and flowing in Rachmaninov’s characteristic idiom, the first presented by woodwinds, the second by cellos in broadly sweeping phrases. The whole symphony is replete with examples of Rachmaninov’s orchestral mastery, but one more passage must be singled out: midway through the first movement we hear a new sonority, that of the xylophone, which is combined in its initial entry with piccolo and bassoon in a most striking blend of instrumental hues.

The second movement combines elements of slow movement and scherzo. The motto (solo horn) introduces the movement, which contains a wealth of melodic ideas and passages clothed in magical colors. Another new sonority is heard in this movement, that of the celesta, which is used in only a few brief passages but to great effect. A rhythmically vigorous central section serves as a Scherzo, after which the nostalgic, lushly romantic material of the opening returns to end the movement quietly.

The finale is a long, brash and vivacious movement packed with surprises. Among the interesting formal elements are an extended fugal section based on the movement’s opening material, and a long coda containing additional ideas not used before in this symphony, including Rachmaninov’s old favorite, the “Dies irae” motif. Rhythmic vitality, instrumental virtuosity and brilliant orchestral effects are found throughout, right up to the symphony’s final dazzling pages.

Robert Markow's musical career began as a horn player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He now writes program notes for orchestras and concert organizations in the USA, Canada, and several countries in Asia. As a journalist he covers the music scenes across North America, Europe, and Asian countries, especially Japan. At Montreal's McGill University he lectured on music for over 25 years.

Program notes by Robert Markow

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