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8.554677 - RACHMANINOV / SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Concertos
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Rachmaninov / Shostakovich: Piano Concertos 

Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943): Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 

Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninov was born at Semyonovo in 1873. His family, one of strong military traditions on both his father's and mother's side, was well-to-do, but the extravagance of his father made it necessary to sell off much of their land. Rachmaninov's childhood was spent largely at the one remaining family estate at Oneg, near Novgorod. The reduction in family circumstances had at least one happier result. When it became necessary to sell the estate at Oneg and to move to St. Petersburg, the expense of education for the Imperial service proved too great. Rachmaninov could make use, instead, of his musical gifts, entering St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of nine with a scholarship. 

Not a particularly industrious student and lacking the attention that he needed at home, in 1885 Rachmaninov failed his general subject examinations at the Conservatory and there were threats that his scholarship would be withdrawn. His mother, now separated from his father and responsible for the boy's welfare, arranged that he should move to Moscow to study with Zverev, a teacher of known strictness. In Zverev's house, however uncongenial the strict routine, he acquired much of his phenomenal technique as a pianist, while broadening his musical understanding by attending concerts in the city. At the age of fifteen he became a pupil of Zverev's former student Ziloti at the Conservatory, studying counterpoint and harmony with Sergey Taneyev and Arensky. His growing interest in composition led to a quarrel with Zverev and removal to the house of his relations, the Satins. 

In 1891 Rachmaninov completed his piano studies at the Conservatory and the composition of his first piano concerto. The following year he graduated from the composition class and composed his notorious Prelude in C sharp minor, apiece that was to haunt him by its excessive popularity. His early career brought initial success as a composer, halted by the failure of his first symphony, conducted badly by Glazunov, apparently drunk at the time, and reviewed in the cruellest terms by César Cui, who described it as a student attempt to depict in music the seven plagues of Egypt. Rachmaninov busied himself as a conductor, signing a contract with the Mamontov opera company. As a composer, however, he suffered from the poor reception of his symphony and was only enabled to continue after a course of treatment with Dr. Nikolai Dahi, a believer in the efficacy of hypnotism. The immediate result was the second of his four piano concertos. 

The years before the Russian revolution brought continued successful activity as a composer and as a conductor. In 1902 Rachmaninov married Natalya Satina and went on to pursue a career, that brought him increasing international fame. There were journeys abroad and a busy professional life, from which summer holidays at the estate of lvanovka, which he finally acquired from the Satins in 1910, provided respite. All this was interrupted with the abdication of the Tsar in 1917 and the beginning of the Revolution. 

Rachmaninov left Russia in 1917. From then until his death in Beverley Hills in 1943, he was obliged to rely largely on performance for a living. Now there was very much less time for composition, as he undertook demanding concert tours, during which he dazzled audiences in Europe and America with his remarkable powers as a pianist. His house at lvanovka was destroyed in the Russian civil war, and in 1931, the year of the Corelli Variations, his music was banned in Russia, to be permitted once more two years later. He spent much time in America, where there were lucrative concert tours, but established a music publishing house in Paris and built for himself a villa near Lucerne, where he completed his Paganini Rhapsody in 1934 and his Tlsird Symphony a year later. In 1939 he left Europe to spend his final years in the United States. 

Rachmaninov gave the first performance of his technically demanding Third Piano Concerto in New York on 28 November 1909. Towards the end of his life he was to refuse to play the work, which he preferred to entrust to the younger pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Walter Gieseking, surprising diffidence in a player of his calibre. The first performance under Damrosch was followed by a Carnegie Hall performance in January 1910, under Gustav Mahier, to be greeted with critical reservations about its length and excessive difficulties. Rachmaninov had written the concerto during the course of the previous summer at Ivanovka, an estate that his uncle had given him and where he was to find a respite from concert activities until deprived of it by the Revolution of 1917. 

The principal theme of the first movement is announced at the beginning of the concerto by the soloist, a melody which one writer has traced to the Russian Orthodox liturgy. This opening theme is of considerable importance since much that follows is derived from it, in one way or another. There is an expressive second subject, and a central development that is the heart of the whole movement, followed by an extended cadenza and a much abbreviated recapitulation. The second movement, Intermezzo, contains a central section in the mood of a Scherzo based on the principal theme of the first movement. The Finale follows at once, its opening theme a rhythmic derivative of the opening subject, followed by the gradual appearance of the theme that it to dominate the movement. It should be added that however familiar the concerto may now seem to us, it is in its way a work of remarkable harmonic and structural originality, vastly superior to the feeble and empty popular imitations that have followed it. 

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975): Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102 

Dmitry Shostakovich was born in St Petersburg in 1906, the son of an engineer. He had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was nine and showed such musical precocity that he was able at the age of thirteen to enter the Petrograd Conservatory, where he had piano lessons from Leonid Nikolayev and studied composition with the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov, Maximilian Steinberg. He continued his studies through the difficult years of the civil war, positively encouraged by Glazunov, the director of the Conservatory, and helping to support his family, particularly after the death of his father in 1922, by working as a cinema pianist, in spite of his own indifferent health, weakened by the privations of the time. He completed his course as a pianist in 1923 and graduated in composition in 1925. His graduation work, the First Symphony, was performed in Leningrad in May 1926 and won considerable success, followed by performances in the years immediately following in Berlin and in Philadelphia. As a pianist be was proficient enough to win an honourable mention at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. 

Shostakovich in his early career was closely involved with the theatre, and in particular with the Leningrad Working Youth Theatre, in musical collaboration in Meyerhold's Moscow production of Mayakovsky's The Flea and in film music, notably New Babylon. His opera The Nose, based on Gogol, was completed in 1928 and given its first concert performance in Leningrad in June 1929, when it provoked considerable hostility from the vociferous and increasingly powerful proponents of the cult of the Proletarian in music and the arts. The controversy aroused was a foretaste of difficulties to come. His ballet The Age of Gold was staged without success in Leningrad in October 1930. Orchestral compositions of these years included a second and third symphony, each a tactful answer to politically motivated criticism. The Second Symphony, To October, was written in response to a commission from the state authorities and was intended to mark the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. The Third Symphony, completed in 1929, marked another celebration of the régime and was subtitled The First of May

in 1934 Shostakovich won acclaim for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on a novella by the nineteenth century Russian writer Nikolay Leskov, and performed in Leningrad and shortly afterwards, under the title Katerina Ismailova, in Moscow. Leskov's story deals with a bourgeois crime, the murder of her merchant husband by the heroine of the tide, and the opera seemed at first thoroughly acceptable in political as well as musical terms. Its condemnation in Pravda in January 1936, apparently at the direct instigation of Stalin, was a significant and dangerous reverse, leading to the withdrawal from rehearsal that year of his Fourth Symphony and the composition the following year of a Fifth Symphony, described, in terms to which Shostakovich had no overt objection, as a Soviet artist's creative reply to justified criticism. Performed in Leningrad in November 1937, the symphony was warmly welcomed, allowing his reinstatement as one of the leading Russian composers of the time. 

In 1941 Shostakovich received the Stalin prize for his Piano Quintet. In the same year Russia became involved in war, with Hitler's invasion of the country and the siege of Leningrad, commemorated by Shostakovich in his Seventh Symphony, a work he had begun under siege conditions and completed after his evacuation to Kuibyshev. Its broadcast performance in the devastated city to which it is dedicated and subsequent performances in allied countries had, as the authorities had intended, a strong effect on morale in Leningrad and in Russia, and aroused emotions of patriotic sympathy abroad. 

Stricter cultural control enforced in the years following the end of the war led, in 1948, to a further explicit attack on Shostakovich, coupled now with Prokofiev, Myaskovsky and Khachaturian, branded as formalists, exhibiting anti-democratic tendencies. The official condemnation brought, of course, social and practical difficulties. The response of Shostakovich was to hold back certain of his compositions from public performance. His First Violin Concerto, written for David Oistrakh, was not performed until after the death of Stalin in 1953, when he returned to the symphony with his Tenth, which met a mixed reception when it was first performed in Leningrad in December 1953. His next two symphonies avoided perilous excursions into liberalisation, the first of them celebrating The Year 1905 and the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917 in 1957, and the second The Year 1917, completed in 1961. In 1962 there came the first performance of the Thirteenth Symphony, with its settings of controversial poems by Yevtushenko, and a revival of the revised version of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, under the title Katerina Ismailova. The opera now proved once more acceptable. 

The last dozen years of the life of Shostakovich, during which he suffered a continuing deterioration of health, brought intense activity as a composer, with a remarkable series of works, many of them striving for still further simplicity and lucidity of style. The remarkable Fourteenth Symphony of 1969, settings of poems by Apollinaire, Lorca, Rilke and Küchelbecker, dedicated to his friend Benjamin Britten, was followed in 1971 by the last of the fifteen symphonies, a work of some ambiguity. The last of his fifteen string quartets was completed and performed in 1974 and his final composition, the Viola Sonata, in July 1975. He died on 9 August. 

The career of Shostakovich must be seen against the political and cultural background of his time and country. Born in the year after Bloody Sunday, when peaceful demonstrators in St Petersburg had been fired on by troops. Shostakovich had his musical education under the new Soviet régime. His own political sympathies have been questioned and there has been controversy particularly over the publication Testimony - The Memoirs of Dmitry Shostakovich, by Solomon Volkov, once accused of fabrication in his portrayal of the composer as a covert enemy of Bolshevism. The testimony of others and recent scholarly surveys of the life and work of Shostakovich suggest that the general tenor of Volkov's Testimony is true enough. Shostakovich belonged to a family of liberal tradition, whose sympathies would have lain with the demonstrators of 1905. Under Stalinism, however, whatever initial enthusiasm he may have felt for the new order would have evaporated with the attacks on artistic integrity and the menacing attempts to direct all creative expression to the aims of socialist realism. While writers and painters may express meaning more obviously, composers have a more ambiguous art, so that the meaning of music, if it has any meaning beyond itself, may generally be hidden. Shostakovich learned how to wear the necessary public mask that enabled him to survive the strictures of 1936 and 1948 without real sacrifice of artistic integrity. 

The Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major was written in 1957 for Shostakovich's son Maxim, who gave the first performance of the work on his nineteenth birthday. The work has about it a youthful appeal for performers and audience alike. The lively first movement opens with a brisk march, leading to a gentler second theme. The material is developed in the central section, and a cadenza ushers in again the principal theme to bring the movement to an end. The expressive slow movement, a romantic interlude of obviously Russian inspiration, introduced by the strings, is followed by an energetic finale, a rondo, the dance-rhythm of its principal subject contrasted with a secondary theme with an oddly lop-sided rhythm.

Keith Anderson


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