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Hyperion Records

CDA67649 - Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos 2 & 3
CDA67649
Recording details: May 2004
Eugene McDermott Concert Hall, Morton H Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, USA
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Jeff Mee
Release date: October 2007
Total duration: 70 minutes 35 seconds

'There just isn't a modern performer who delivers Rachmaninov quite like this—just as the composer intended … for sheer energy, vivacity and an intuitive understanding of the late-Romantic concerto, there are few who can equal Hough. The pieces here are taken from the previously released, much-acclaimed and award-winning two-CD set recorded live in 2004, so you can now hear the two best-loved pieces from the original. If you missed out first time round, don't hold back now!' (Classic FM Magazine)

Piano Concertos Nos 2 & 3
Moderato  [9'54]
Adagio sostenuto  [11'02]
Allegro scherzando  [11'22]
Finale: Alla breve  [13'21]

Stephen Hough’s definitive performances of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos were recorded live in Dallas in 2004. Originally issued as a 2-CD set, we are now making the two most popular concertos, Nos 2 and 3, available on a single disc.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The path between Rachmaninov’s first two piano concertos, from his late teens to late twenties, was scarcely less stony than the one that had preceded the first. On the positive side, he was developing significantly as a conductor, reckoning that he could hardly do worse than Glazunov. He landed a post with Savva Mamontov’s private opera company (where the young Chaliapin was also making his mark), and conceived the best of his three short operas, Francesca da Rimini, for it (although completion of that work was to be much delayed). Other than that, however, he was scratching a living from various less than prestigious teaching posts. Feuds at the Conservatoire involving Ziloti, to whom Rachmaninov was staunchly loyal, ruled out a post there. It is from this stage that the famous scowl seems to have become etched on his face.

Creatively there were more setbacks than triumphs. Rachmaninov’s dissatisfaction with what he had achieved in his First Concerto was as nothing compared to the trauma that ensued from the 1897 premiere of his First Symphony, distorted as it was under the baton of a reportedly less than entirely sober Glazunov. This was compounded by the more or less routine self-doubts of the young professional musician and by the ongoing tendency to existential listlessness, worthy of a character from Rachmaninov’s much-admired Chekhov. Two visits to the elderly Lev Tolstoy, designed to inspire the young composer, had more or less the reverse effect. At the first the revered author offered merely banal imprecations to daily toil (Tolstoy was by this stage well into his own self-despising phase; he had gone native and was tilling the soil on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana). At the second visit, in the company of Chaliapin and Goldenweiser, Rachmaninov had to endure Tolstoy’s withering response to his music, which was to echo down into the days of Soviet Socialist Realism: ‘Who needs it?’. After his London debut at the Queen’s Hall on 7 April 1899, Rachmaninov was invited to play his First Concerto the following year. Instead, however, he promised to compose ‘a second and better one’. But with his spirits at a low ebb, that was easier said than done.

Famously it was a visit to a friend of a friend (and a near neighbour) of his aunt and cousins that changed everything. Dr Nikolay Dahl was a music-loving doctor who had taken an interest in therapeutic hypnosis – all the rage at the time in France. Psychological malaise being endemic in Russian society, Dahl found plenty of scope for practice, and his results were reputedly impressive. Probably the successful therapy in Rachmaninov’s case had as much to do with conversation with a cultured man who turned to music for consolation as with actual hypnotherapy. At any rate the Second Concerto was released from the composer’s blocked psyche. In gratitude he dedicated the concerto to Dahl (who as an amateur violist would sometimes even play in the piece, garnering applause when his identity was disclosed).

That at least is the official version of events, deriving from Rachmaninov’s own autobiographical notes. However, one family report runs rather differently. According to the composer’s grandson, Alexander, who claims to have been told the story by his grandmother and sworn to secrecy until fifty years after her death, the true reason for Rachmaninov’s visit to Dahl was to court the doctor’s daughter, who was the secret inspiration behind the Second Concerto and who remained a shadowy presence during the composer’s subsequent married life. Alexander told this story to Stephen Hough in person; as yet there is no independent verification, and Rachmaninov scholars regard it with scepticism.

Whatever the true background, Rachmaninov’s creative inertia was overcome, and during the summer of 1900, spent largely with Chaliapin in Milan, he put his ideas for the new Concerto in order. He composed the second and third movements back in Russia and performed them on their own on 2 December in Moscow’s Nobility Hall, with Ziloti conducting. The two cousins would collaborate eleven months later on the first complete performance of the Concerto at the Moscow Philharmonic Society. It was not until May 1902 that London heard the work promised them three years earlier, and a further six months went by before the composer himself played it there (early British performances were given with Ziloti and Basil Sapelnikoff as soloists).

Anyone not knowing that the first movement was composed last might reasonably assume that its famous solo piano opening was the seed-idea for the whole work. This dark-hued progression, with its steady chromatic ascent and bell-like reinforcements in the bass, reappears in various disguises at nodal points in the work: as the closing harmonic progression of the first movement, at the beginning of the second, and, most obviously, just before the first main theme of the finale (after the piano’s opening flourishes). As in the First Concerto, the first movement exposition follows a Griegian pattern, the two main ideas, both of them now gorgeously lyrical, being spaced by brilliant figuration. The central phase, as before largely built on sequences, manages to sound freshly invented while adhering rigorously to existing material. There is no cadenza. Instead the structure unfolds as an unbroken, perfectly proportioned symphonic whole – no question of revision being needed this time. The interweaving of soloist and orchestra is a constant marvel, as is the scoring itself.

As the Concerto’s popularity grew, so its themes were treated to numerous song settings and arrangements, including the slow movement as Prayer for Violin and Piano by Fritz Kreisler ‘in collaboration with the composer’. The basic arpeggio figuration here comes from Rachmaninov’s early Romance for six hands at the piano, composed just after the original version of the First Concerto. The design echoes the slow-fast-slow pattern made famous by Tchaikovsky in his B flat Concerto, though in Rachmaninov’s case the faster music emerges gradually, as if under pressure from the internal force of its lyrical motifs.

Just as the slow movement raised the curtain with a magical modulation to E major from the first movement’s C minor conclusion, so the finale returns to C minor by stealth from the end of the slow movement. Once under way, the finale unfolds another drama of emotional turmoil, longing, regret and tussles with Fate, all the while blending the rhapsody and virtuosity of the Lisztian concerto tradition with the rock-solid craftsmanly values Rachmaninov learned from Taneyev.

Another unverified story behind the Second Concerto has it that Nikita Morozov (a fellow graduate from Arensky’s composition class in 1892, and the same Morozov who criticized the structure of the first movement and nearly plunged Rachmaninov back into creative self-loathing) actually composed the finale’s beautiful second melody and, on hearing of his friend’s admiration for it, allowed him to borrow it. In 1946, three years after Rachmaninov’s death, this would become the hit tune ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’. And among films that featured extracts from the Second Concerto were Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) and David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1946), the latter brilliantly matching the music to a scenario of emotional triumph longed-for but probably only achievable in fantasy (a scenario perhaps closer to the origins of the piece than previously imagined, if the story told by the composer’s grandson has any basis in reality).

Between the composition of the second and third concertos Rachmaninov married his cousin, Natalya Satina – not before getting the necessary dispensation from the Tsar. Despite a number of serious ailments, including bouts of angina, and the pressures of a young family, his three-pronged career as composer-pianist-conductor advanced on all fronts, creating problems by its very success. He completed Francesca da Rimini, composed a further opera (The Miserly Knight), and fulfilled a temporary conducting contract with the Bolshoy Theatre so successfully that he was offered the post of musical director there, as well as taking charge of orchestral concerts. In 1906–7 he wintered in Dresden, largely to avoid the temptation to conduct and instead to forge ahead with composing his Second Symphony and his First Piano Sonata. At this stage still much exercised by financial worries, he had the confidence-raising prospect of a lucrative American tour as pianist, for which he had in mind a third concerto.

This work was largely composed in the summer of 1909 at Ivanovka, though its conception probably goes back two or three years before that, and it was finished in Moscow that September. It was dedicated to Josef Hofmann, who, however, never played it. Rachmaninov practised the fiendishly demanding solo part on a dummy keyboard during his Atlantic crossing, before giving the premiere on 28 November 1909 with the New York Symphony Orchestra under Walter Damrosch in New York’s New Theater. The American critics were not yet disposed to rave about Rachmaninov as a composer, even though, or perhaps because, the reputation of his C sharp minor Prelude preceded him, as it had done ten years earlier in Britain. After the premiere the New York Sun declared, ‘sound, reasonable music, this, though not a great nor memorable proclamation’; and in general the best the press had to say about the Third Concerto was that it put the Second in the shade. Rachmaninov for his part took badly to what he saw as the pervasiveness of the American business ethic, and despite thunderous audience acclaim he found the American public cold.

Nineteen days after the premiere, he played the new concerto with the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler at Carnegie Hall, professing admiration for the Austrian maestro’s attention to detail and his ability to make the musicians stay on, unprotesting, long after the scheduled end of a rehearsal. On 4 April 1910 he introduced the concerto to Russia, with the Moscow Philharmonic conducted by Evgeny Plotnikov. Russian critical responses were warmer than those of their American counterparts, but in general European critics considered the work more as a splendid vehicle for Rachmaninov’s pianism than as a noteworthy composition in its own right. Even so, only a few years later the Third Concerto’s success had become so colossal that even as self-confident a spirit as Prokofiev was intimidated by the piece and determined to outdo it with his even more gargantuan Piano Concerto No 2.

The D minor Concerto opens with a sense of palpable anticipation; anyone bar the first-time listener knows that this modest pulsation is going to unleash waves of astonishing power and energy. The opening paragraphs are in a constant state of becoming. The strings are kept muted while the tempo accelerates, and ideas spin off that will germinate further on – such as the trumpet counterpoint that will soon support the second subject, on strings alone, before the piano is sent into dreamy raptures by it. Once again the ability to rhapsodize without sacrificing tautly disciplined thematic working brings to fruition everything Rachmaninov had learned from Taneyev and, indirectly, from Tchaikovsky. The remainder of the exposition is again built on a series of accelerandos. And all this is but preparation for the colossal accumulation of the development section. This initially dips down, gathering energy for the ascent, and in its course Rachmaninov goes through a bewildering succession of different keys while maintaining unwavering control of their overall trajectory (regulated by the bass line on cellos and double basses, from the breakthrough climax to the entry of the cadenza). Among his second thoughts for streamlining the piece were to provide the first movement with a less densely packed cadenza than the original (Stephen Hough plays this revision, as does the composer himself on his single recording of the work, made with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy in 1939–40). After its titanic climax the cadenza enters a relaxation phase, supporting snippets of the opening theme on flute, oboe, clarinet and horn in turn, and the movement concludes with a brief review of all the material, the last few bars marked accelerando, in conformity with the main structural principle established in the initial phases.

As in the Second Concerto, the slow movement starts by bridging the harmonic gap from the previous one. This process is greatly magnified, and once again the main ideas are all in a greater state of tonal flux than their counterparts in Rachmaninov’s previous concertos. Does the soloist’s opening flourish – rooted on F sharp minor with added sixth – define the home key, as it thrusts away the orchestra’s continuing attachment to D minor? Or is its subsequent descent into D flat major the defining moment? (Rachmaninov’s notated key signatures tell their own story, interestingly at odds with the music’s surface orientation.) A hyper-passionate climax seems to purge the movement of its expressive longings, and a mercurial F sharp minor episode fleetingly recalls the main first movement theme, now woven around the piano’s repeated-note figurations. Now that the piano has temporarily got the urge to rhapsodize out of its system, it pushes through to a mini-cadenza, which serves as a characteristically hyperbolic upbeat to the finale.

Music as firmly rooted in tradition as Rachmaninov’s always draws on the vast stock of archetypes inherited from the nineteenth century, skirting the edges of allusion and quotation. But the opening paragraph of the finale is closer than anything else in the Third Concerto to outright quotation, paraphrasing as it does Rimksy-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture. This reference in turn lends support to those who would trace religious imagery in the work back to its chant-like opening theme (a connection that Rachmaninov himself always brushed aside as fortuitous, despite his own devout Orthodox nature, and despite being steeped in the Church’s musical traditions). A foretaste of the heroic victory to come, built on the piano’s galloping left-hand syncopations, eventually subsides into a long chain of episodes, initially fairly relaxed but gradually building into a vast accompanied cadenza (which the composer significantly cut when he made his recording). This central phase is cadenza-like both for the pianist – in its swirling toccata figurations – and for the composer – in its subtly crafted references back to the first two movements at the same time as it works over the finale’s own ideas. As with the Second Symphony, the finale features a redemptive wide-spanning theme, with piano and orchestra at last united in a paean of praise to an unspecified higher power.

David Fanning © 2004

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