Inside The Music: Russian Rhapsody

Editor of BBC Music Magazine Oliver Condy sheds some light on the circumstances surrounding the great works that feature in the Bristol International Classical Season 2015-16 at Colston Hall. These bite-sized programme notes and accompanying videos cut to the heart of the music, allowing you to get that little bit more from your classical experience.

Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2

Although Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 1 is regarded today as one of his true masterpieces, the premiere in 1897 was a complete disaster thanks to the drunken state of the conductor, fellow Russian composer Alexander Glazunov. Not that being entirely sober would have helped matters – Glazunov barely gave the score so much as a glance before he took to the podium and proceeded to conduct, so the reports go, ‘like a zombie’. The orchestra was all over the place – an utter humiliation for the young Rachmaninov who had spent at least two years perfecting the piece. The poor man withdrew the symphony from public performance and fell into a deep depression.

So who or what gave Rachmaninov the confidence to fly again? In 1900, friends urged the composer to see a hypnotist. Nicolai Dahl, however, was well known for treating alcoholism, not ‘failed’ composers, but his sessions seemed to help, and within months Rachmaninov was composing again, making his triumphant return to the concert stage with his Piano Concerto No. 2, followed, a few years later, by the Symphony No. 2.

In many ways, the Second Symphony is even more accomplished than the Second Piano Concerto – it’s aglow with invention, rich orchestration and some of the most beautiful melodies in all of Russian music. Seconds into the first movement, a gorgeous theme arises from the gloom, continuing on a long arc, ebbing and flowing until a second melody and a third, each just as alluring, take over. The whole movement plays out like a drama, each episode as captivating and arresting as the last.

The second movement starts as a brilliant, skittish Scherzo, its melody made up from the notes of the Dies Irae plainchant from the Catholic requiem mass, a theme that occurs several times in another work in this concert, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. About a minute in, however, Rachmaninov lifts the lid on one of his most ravishing yet briefest of melodies, one that repeatedly rises before eventually subsiding.

The beautiful third movement Adagio is perhaps one of the greatest movements in all of Russian music, its plaintive melody sung out on the string section before the clarinet takes over with an extended solo, redolent of the slow movement of the Second Piano Concerto. It’s exquisitely orchestrated and brilliantly paced, rising to the most astonishing climax almost exactly half-way through the movement, winding down for its remaining seven minutes.

The final movement starts as a sparkling Russian dance after which Rachmaninov introduces yet another sumptuous melody and revisits the theme from the Adagio. Listen out of the movement’s brief but joyous passage featuring overlapping descending scales, a flurry of excitement that plugs into Rachmaninov’s love of bells. The symphony finishes with a tremendous flourish with repeated notes hammering the cadence home, again much like the end of the Second Piano Concerto. Unsurprisingly, the symphony was a huge success at its premiere in St Petersburg in 1908 and was awarded the Glinka Prize of 1,000 rubles. Rachmaninov had at last been vindicated.

Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Niccolò Paganini’s fiendish 24 Caprices have seduced – and infuriated – violinists ever since they were written at the start of the 19th century. But the final Caprice, No. 24, went on to inspire sets of variations from a staggering number of composers including Brahms, Schumann, Liszt and, in the 20th century, Lutoslawski. Its catchy melody and perfect structure also seduced Rachmaninov who wrote his great Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra in 1934 – a piano concerto in all but name. Rachmaninov had, by now, moved away from Russia and had settled in America where he supported himself touring as a pianist; in 1932 he built a summer home on a plot of land near Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. And it was here he wrote his Rhapsody.

Rachmaninov was a brilliant pianist (his hands still hold the record for the largest of any concert pianist), and he uses his unparalleled knowledge of piano technique to craft 24 highly imaginative, thrilling variations from Paganini’s theme. Throughout the work – as is his habit in much of his orchestral output – Rachmaninov weaves in the melody from the Dies Irae plainchant, ingeniously combining it with Paganini’s theme (during Variation VII, for example), or presenting it as a sombre musical contrast.

The work charges towards the 18th Variation where it makes a stunning detour for one of Rachmaninov’s flashes of pure brilliance. He turns the theme upside down to produce an entirely new melody, scoring it in D-flat major for extra romantic power. It’s a magical moment of calm among the frenetic storm and because the resulting tune is so memorable, it doesn’t matter one iota how he does it. The composer clearly knew he’d struck musical gold, too: ‘this one is for my agent,’ he said.

The 18th Variation marks something of a turning point, and from then on, the race for home is on. But not before a final appearance for the Dies Irae, which rounds off the Rhapsody with an imposing liturgical flourish. But does it? In fact, the piano has the final say: a tiny whisper of a fragment of the Paganini theme as if the pianist has already left the stage…