Another great concert last night from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. This one’s appropriately called “Rachmaninoff + Rachmaninoff.” Here’s the lineup, cribbed from the DSO’s program:
Hans Graf conducts
Garrick Ohlsson piano
Piano Concerto No. 4
Symphony No. 1
Rachmaninoff’s large and ambitious First Symphony incorporates music of the Russian Orthodox Church. Garrick Ohlsson’s “rich and full” playing unlocks the melancholy secrets of Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto.
Where to start this conversation? I suppose the logical place to start is to just call out the elephant in the room on this. Neither one of these works is Rachmaninoff at his very best. In fact, both of them were heavily and negatively criticized upon their debuts, and they are ruthlessly compared today to his acknowledged superior works.
Symphony No. 1 was conducted in its first performance by Alexander Glazunov, and to put it delicately, he royally botched it, so much so that 22 year old Rachmaninoff didn’t write another note for three years, and only then after extensive hypnotic therapy. Some say Glazunov was drunk during the performance, which is certainly in keeping with his reputation for alcohol. Composer and music critic Aleksandr Gauk famously wrote one of the most scathing commentaries of all time in his review of that performance:
“If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students were to compose a programme symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell. To us this music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization and quasi-melodic outlines, the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, the complete absence of themes.”
What’s interesting is that this same man would head up the team to reconstruct that symphony from recovered orchestra parts decades after its score was assumed lost during the Revolution. It was also Gauk at the baton when the symphony made its second debut in 1945, considered to be a great success. Less than three years later, it would be the first concert televised on American television as part of a series under the baton of Eugene Ormandy. It played again on the second night.
By contrast, Piano Concerto No. 4 was 30 years later. Rachmaninoff had been forced to flee his beloved homeland during the Russian Revolution, never to step foot on that soil again. The melancholy streaks already present turned into full on bouts of depression. You’d think after the successes of his previous two concerti that he’d at least have the impetus to know what the public wanted, or at least know what was speaking to him to write such masterworks. Audiences often find it difficult to wrap their heads around it after a single performance.
After hearing these works performed live, I naturally have my own thoughts on these pieces. They were played in reverse order of their debuts, chronologically speaking, but I think that was the superior presentation. A symphony is bigger than a concerto and should be the showpiece finale.
The concerto is a giant tease, built on a series of smaller teases. Rachmaninoff frequently swells to great promise of the same kind of sweeping melodies that his reputation is built upon, and then he just lets it fall apart. You know that bit at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark where Belloq opens the ark hoping to find the stone tablets and all that’s in there is sand? It’s a lot like that. There’s a repeated expectation and disappointment, only without the vengeful angels or the grand John Williams payoff. But that’s not to say it isn’t interesting to hear. Three years before it debuted, Rachmaninoff famously attended the premiere of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The jazz influences of that piece can be heard here if you know what to listen for. It’s more subtle and undeniably Russian, but it’s in there. I don’t think this idea gets enough attention. That is to say, I’ve never heard anyone comment upon it in public. Once it’s pointed out, you can’t not hear it, but it somehow escapes connection in the popular understanding these days. I read it somewhere a few years back, and even though I don’t actively listen to it that often, I’ve never been able to hear it the same way again.
Garrick Ohlsson was nothing short of amazing at the piano. I’ve seen his name pop up here and there throughout my music collection, and his reputation as one of the modern greats is well-cemented, but to be there is to see what the man puts into it. Ohlsson’s technical prowess cannot be denied, but that’s not what makes this piece. You need technical prowess to pull off any Rachmaninoff. Ohlsson was smiling more often than while he played. It didn’t look like he was concentrating that much, as though the music were simply being fed through him. The result was that, to my ear, those Gershwin influences really came through. I don’t know if that was due to knowing what to listen for, or if his interpretation pushed it to the forefront. Probably a combination of both. So while the tease is there, repeatedly, it comes across here as a playful tease where it never has before when I just listen to recordings. And that’s just weird to me seeing as how the entire piece culminates in stereotypical Russian fashion with a somber ending. I would love to hear Ohlsson tackle Piano Concerto No. 2.
The symphony, being an early work, has hints of the greatness to come, but Rachmaninoff’s not ready yet. He’s still grappling with the idea of learning that identity. What’s more, it’s dedicated to “A.L.,” the beautiful wife of one of Rachmaninoff’s friends (were they still friends after the debut?). There’s a line on the score that reads “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.” This is a line out of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Rachmaninoff never explained anything to us, so we can only guess. What’s truly fascinating to me is that if you listen to it with an ear towards this idea, the symphony plays out as though it were the musical equivalent of a Russian novel. There are turns of hope undermined by a sense of foreboding, maintained throughout by the opening motif. That motif would later inspire the signature “danger motif” of many of James Horner’s film scores in the 1980s, most prominently heard in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Aliens. I grew up on film scores like that, so I can’t unhear it, and it colors my perception of Horner’s source material. As far as I’m concerned, whatever vengeance Rachmaninoff thought he needed, he certainly made it happen musically. The raw emotion in this, while not fully developed, is a testament to the brief but significant influence Tchaikovsky had upon the young Rachmaninoff. One thing Russian music has in spades, even as the Romantic era died off, is that it’s always overpowering in its expressiveness.
Here’s the thing about both of these pieces. If they’d come from the pen of any other Russian composer when they did, they’d have been hailed as great successes. They are as good or better than most of their cultural contemporaries. We compare them to other Rachmaninoff works, specifically Symphony No. 2 and Piano Concerti Nos. 2 and 3. Rightfully so, obviously, but that sort of expectation raises the bar, and that’s where these pieces get a bad rap. In the end, they are lesser works from a master composer, and there’s no way around that, but they are still Rachmaninoff to the core. It’s a mistake to dismiss them precisely for that reason. The opportunity to hear them performed on stage was most definitely worth it. It lent a new appreciation for many little things that, while the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts in these cases, the parts still stood up to be counted.
Our guest conductor for the evening, Hans Graf, was very nearly the DSO’s music director at one time, and even though he narrowly missed the appointment, the orchestra clearly loves to have him back from time to time. He’s a trip to watch on stage. He put a great deal of passion into it. He might be the first conductor I’ve seen make use of the podium’s rollbar to keep him from falling backwards into the audience, and I’m not entirely sure he was even aware of it. More than once I had the notion that conducting these works required a skill not unlike herding cats, and Graf did it beautifully. Maybe that’s part of the equation. Rachmaninoff was what we call a triple threat: he was a composer, a conductor, and a pianist, all of the highest caliber. Maybe to pull off even his “lesser” works, it requires a master conductor and a master pianist to fully experience the master in the composition. Some pieces are so beautiful on their own merits that you might get away with budding talents at the helm. But there are some that demand that next level mastery simply to make them palatable for wider audiences. Maybe this is one of those times. I’ll have to chew on that for a while and see if that idea still holds up for me over time. Whatever the case, the audience clearly enjoyed the show, and I know I did.