Movement 1: Allegro vivace
Movement 2: Largo
Movement 3: Allegro vivace
Rachmaninov had composed some forty major works before leaving Russia for ever after the November 1917 Revolution; but he managed a mere half dozen in the twenty-six years from then until his death (and not one of these was completed during his first nine years abroad). The dual culture-shock of exile from his beloved homeland and more general post-war trauma undoubtedly played a part in this hiatus. ‘I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien’, he wrote. ‘I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new. I have made intense efforts to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.’
There were more mundane factors in addition. In America, cut off from the relatively privileged lifestyle he had so painstakingly achieved, Rachmaninov had to begin a new career as an international concert pianist in order to provide for his immediate family (and in due course to subsidize an increasing number of more distant needy relations and friends). The demands of a rapidly expanding repertoire, together with the rigours of travel and recording, squeezed out any spare time that might have been devoted to composition.
In 1926 he finally succeeded in taking a sabbatical year away from performance in order to complete his Fourth Piano Concerto. Ideas for this work had been taking shape since 1914, and he had even withheld from publication one of his 1911 Études-tableaux (for piano solo) probably because he had already formed the intention to rework its second half as the closing section of the concerto’s slow movement. Putting his ideas for the new concerto into shape proved to be fraught with difficulty, in part simply because Rachmaninov had to relearn the habit of composition, in part also because he was sufficiently influenced by the spirit of the times to have become suspicious of his own natural grandiloquence. (His concerns may be judged from the cuts he inflicted on his Third Concerto and on his Second Piano Sonata in its 1931 revision.) Hardly was the Fourth Concerto complete than he began trimming it. One-hundred-and-fourteen bars were shorn off in the summer of 1927, following the tepidly received first performances (given with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy), and a further seventy-eight bars disappeared in summer 1941, just before Rachmaninov recorded the work with the same artists.
The result of these vacillations is a work that seems ridden with doubt. On the one hand it has one of the most inspired opening gambits in the entire concerto repertoire, the piano entering on the crest of a wave; and the proportions of the first movement are subtly adjusted throughout, so that grand statements ignite suddenly, rather than having to go through the motions of elaborate rhetorical build-up. Yet the final bars of this movement are strangely throwaway, while the slow movement hovers indecisively between expansive statement and the modesty of an interlude. As for the finale, it constantly shies away from the Dance of Death character that seems to be its main thrust.
For these and other reasons the Fourth Concerto has been much maligned over the years. The inevitable, though not necessarily more enlightened, reaction is to ascribe all such criticism to prejudice or narrow-mindedness. A subtler judgment might be that the music’s insecurities and vacillations are precisely what give it its potential appeal to post-modern sensibilities. And there can be little doubt that Rachmaninov’s late masterpieces – the Paganini Rhapsody and the Symphonic Dances – would have been inconceivable without its example. The Concerto is dedicated to his friend Nicholas Medtner.
from notes by David Fanning © 2004