Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

Piano Trio No. 1 in G Minor Op. Posth. (1892)

Suite No.2 for Two Pianos Op.17 (1900-01)


Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

Piano Trio No. 1 in G Minor Op. Posth. (1892)

"I am a Russian composer,and the land of my birth has inevitably influenced my temperament and outlook. My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music. I never consciously attempt to write Russian music, or any other kind of music, for that matter. I have been strongly influenced by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, but I have never consciously imitated anybody. I try to make my music speak simply and directly that which is in my heart at the time I am composing. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious. For composing music is as much a part of my living as breathing and eating. I compose music because I must give expression to my feelings, just as I talk because I must give utterance to my thoughts."

The New Book of Modern Composers

David Ewen. Knopf. 1961

"Although certain of his works have enjoyed a phenomenal vogue with the public, Rachmaninov has no proper place in a book on contemporary music."

Introduction to Twentieth Century Musiic

Joseph Machlis. W.W. Norton. 1961

Rachmaninov was undoubtedly one of this century’s greatest pianists, his performances legendary. He excelled also as a conductor of both operatic and symphonic works. It was, however, as a composer that he fared less well, certainly with the critics. His own compositions were considered totally irrelevant. He lived in exile, in Beverly Hills, as did two of the titans of Twentieth Century music, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, yet as a composer he was viewed as a sad ghost of a bygone era. Unlike Stravinsky or Schoenberg, his works were popular with the public. And, his works were championed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra as showpieces for the lush "Philadelphia sound." Ironically it may have been his popularity that contributed to misunderstanding his works. In order to be recorded, his works were, with his sanction, chopped to fit sides of long playing records. As a performer, Rachmaninov felt that his American audiences had a short attention span and advised against playing anything longer than 17 minutes in duration. The following letter to Nicholai Medtner (a composer Rachmaninov admired greatly and to whom he dedicated his Variations on a Theme by Corelli Op. 42) reveals his wry sense of humor. "I’ve played (the Op. 42 variations) about fifteen times, but of these fifteen performances, only one was good. The others were sloppy. I can’t play my own compositions! And it’s so boring! Not once have I played these all in continuity. I was guided by the coughing of the audience. Whenever the coughing would increase, I would skip the next variation. Whenever there was no coughing, I would play them in proper order. In one concert, I don’t remember where, some small town, the coughing was so violent that I played only ten variations (out of twenty). My best record was set in New York, where I played 8 variations. However, I hope that you will play all of them, and won't ‘cough’."

It was not until the 1970’s that uncut versions of his works began to be performed. In addition, his choral works which had been neglected, but rumored to be among his best works, were resurrected. Today, there are numerous recordings of the choral symphony The Bells, as well as his liturgical masterworks Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom Op. 3l (1910) and the All-Night Vigil Op. 37 (1915). It was also in the seventies that the late British pianist John Ogdon revived Rachmaninov’s two large Piano Sonatas Op. 28 and Op 36, and it has been in Britain, not America (his adopted home) that a revaluation of Rachmaninov the composer has taken place. It is interesting to note that the Fifth Edition of Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, (Eric Blom, editor, 1954) contains a single two column page article about Rachmaninov, while the New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, (Stanley Sadie, editor, 1988) has a lengthier article that stretches over six, double columned pages, not counting the listing of works.

The Piano Trio No. l in G Minor was composed by the nineteen year old Rachmaninov in a few days in January 1892. This one movement work was first performed with the composer as pianist, David Krein violinist, and Anatole Brandukov as cellist in the Vostryakov Hall on January 30, 1892.

It is thanks to the kindness and generosity of Luba Edlina and Rostislav Dubinsky of the Borodin Trio that you will be able to hear this lovely work performed today. Having exhausted all possible sources for obtaining the score, the Sierra Chamber Society's General Director, Stevan Cavalier (who appears as pianist in today’s performance of the Trio) wrote to Luba Edlina, pianist of the Borodin Trio (who had recorded the G Minor Trio, as well as the more familiar Trio Elegiaque Op. 9 for Chandos Records (Chan 834l); Luba Edlina, piano; Rostislav Dubinsky, violin; Yuli Turovsky, cello) asking where we could find the score. A short time later, the score arrived accompanied by this note:

R&L Dubinsky

VIII-15-1994

Dear Mr. Cavalier,

We’re afraid you wouldn’t be able to get Rachmaninoff’s Trio, not anywhere now, even in Moscow.

So, we made a copy for you.

Say thank you and enjoy it!

 

Kindest regards,

Luba and Rosti Dubinsky

(Two-thirds of the Borodin Trio)

Our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to the Dubinskys for enabling us to present this work. I’m sure our listeners will concur with this sentiment!

1994-95 Season, Program IV , Sunday March 5, 1995

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"Some people achieve a kind of immortality just by the totality with which they do or do not possess some quality or characteristic. Rachmaninovís immortalizing totality was his scowl. He was a six-andĖa-half-foot-tall scowl."

Igor Stravinsky

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

Suite No.2 for Two Pianos Op.17 (1900-01)

"I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has inevitably influenced my temperament and outlook. My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian Music. I never consciously attempt to write Russian music; or any other kind of music, for that matter. I have been strongly influenced by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, but I have never consciously imitated anybody. I try to make my music speak simply and directly that which is in my heart at the time I am composing. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious. For music is as much a part of my living as breathing and eating. I compose music because I must give expression to my feeling, just as I talk because I must give utterance to my thoughts."

The New Book of Modern Composers, David Ewen. Knopf. 1961

"Although certain of his works have enjoyed a phenomenal vogue with the public, Rachmaninov has no proper place in a book on contemporary music."

Introduction to Twentieth Century Music, Joseph Machlis. W.W. Norton. 1961

Rachmaninov was undoubtedly one of this centuryís greatest pianists, his performances legendary. He also excelled as a conductor of both operatic and symphonic works. It was, however,as a composer that he fared less well; with the critics. His compositions were considered totally irrelevant to the course of twentieth century music. He lived in exile, in Beverly Hills (Beverly Hills? Exile?) as did two of the titans of Twentieth Century Music, Stravinsky and Schoenberg; all three having fled the two-headed monster, Fascism, that had terrorized Eurasia in the first half of this century; National Socialism in the West, and Soviet Communism in the East.

(If I may be permitted a rant here.) Stravinsky and Schoenberg represented competing ideologies in music; Neo-Classicism versus Dodecaphonic Serialism (Twelve-tone music). The battleground of this struggle shifted from Europe to America. Ideologues from both sides made their way into Academia, preaching their respective gospels. European composers of either camp were lionized; their presence in America was viewed as vitalizing to Americaís musical culture. However, one could make the argument that the casualties of this musical culture war were American composers - Leonard Bernstein leaps to mind. At a time when American composers were starting to free themselves from being legitimized by studying in Europe (thank goodness we will now have no more emerging composers who have on their resume "Studied with Nadia Boulanger"). Europe came to America. Of course, Stravinsky, above the fray, not particularly interested in proselytizing, always seemed to enjoy greatly thumbing his nose at his own admirers, embraced Serialism in his later years, yet without sacrificing his unique musical voice. It seems that it was not until the 1980s that American composers were once again on the path to finding their own music. On the other hand in the realm of Pop music, Europeans have been aping the sound and style of American music since the 1920ís Ė way before the Rolling Stones. (I did say this was a rant.)

Back to Rachmaninov. As a composer he was viewed as a sad, but, to quote critic Paul Rosenfeld " ...very charming and amiable ghost" of a bygone era. Unlike Stravinsky and Schoenberg, his works were popular with the public. His compositions were championed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra as showpieces for the lush "Philadelphia sound". Ironically, it may have been his popularity that contributed to misunderstanding of his works. In order to be recorded, his works were, with his sanction, chopped and edited to fit sides of "long playing records" which in any case, did not play for very long. Perhaps as a performer he was not the best person to promote his own works. As the composer, he could and did take liberties with the pieces that another performer would have not dared to do. Rachmaninov felt that his American audiences had a short attention span (he was not wrong) and advised against playing anything longer than 17 minutes in duration. The following is from a letter to Nicholai Medtner, a composer Rachmaninov greatly admired (Medtnerís music, mostly composed for piano, is gorgeous, and difficult for the performer- the idiom is similar to Rachmaninovís but covers a wider range of expression. Thanks to the Brits, a good deal of it is now available on CD's). The quote reveals Rachmaninoff's wry sense of humor. "Iíve played (the Op.42 Corelli Variations-dedicated to Medtner) about fifteen times, but of these fifteen performances, only one was good. The others were sloppy. I canít play my own compositions! And itís so boring! Not once have I played these all in continuity. I was guided by the coughing of the audience. Whenever coughing would increase, I would skip the next variation. Whenever there was no coughing, I would play them in proper order. In one concert, I donít remember where, some small town, the coughing was so violent that I played only ten variations (out of twenty). My best record was set in New York, where I played 18 variations. However, I hope that you will play all of them and wonít Ďcoughí."

It was not until the 1970ís that uncut versions of his works began to be performed. In addition, his choral works, which had been neglected, but rumored to be among his best works, were resurrected. Today, there are numerous recordings of the choral symphony The Bells, as well as his liturgical masterworks Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom Op.31 (1910) and the All-Night Vigil Op.37 (1915). It was also in the seventies that the late British pianist John Ogden revived Rachmaninovís two large Piano Sonatas Op.28 and Op.36, and it has been in Britain, not in America, his adopted home, that a reevaluation of Rachmaninov the composer has taken place. It is interesting to note that the Fifth Edition of Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, (Eric Blom, editor, 1954) contains a single two column page article about Rachmaninov, while the New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, (Stanley Sadie, editor, 1988) has an article that stretches over six double columned pages, not counting the listing of works.

Four-hand piano music played an interesting role in the works of Rachmaninov. While a young student, he prepared a piano duet transcription of Tchaikovskyís Manfred Symphony, which first brought him to the attention of Tchaikovsky and others in Russiaís musical world. His last work, the Symphonic Dances, started out as a two piano work and was later orchestrated for the Philadelphia orchestra. The Suite No. 2 also came at a pivotal point in his compositional career. It was composed, along with the more popular Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, as the story goes, as a result of the hypnotherapy of Dr. Nicholay Dahl, whose treatment the composer sought to help him out of a crippling depression that left him unable to compose; a result of the disastrous performance of his First Symphony. However, it should be noted that while this creative block effected his ability to compose, at this same time he was launching what would be a distinguished career as a conductor, of both opera and symphonic works.

The Suite No. 2 is a rarity among the works of Rachmaninov. Itís in a Major key! C Major. It is perhaps his most ebullient and upbeat large-scale work. From the confidence of the opening march, to the swirling fast-pace waltz, to the lovely, sad Romance, to the fiendish tarantella. This is a work whose melodies will insinuate themselves into your memory, and will replay themselves as, and after you leave the concert. It was dedicated to Alexander Goldenweiser and premiered in Moscow in November of 1901 with Rachmaninov and his virtuoso cousin and teacher Alexander Siloti at the pianos.

We turn again to Stravinsky for the coda: "As I think about him, his silence looms as a noble contrast to the self-approbations which are the only conversation of all performing and most other musicians. And, he was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace. That is a great deal."

 1998-1999 Season, Program IV, Sunday April 11, 1999

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All original text on this page copyright 2000 by Joseph Way