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PROGRAM NOTES: Russian Passion
April 13 & 14, 2019

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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1840-1893

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23

It is ironic that Tchaikovsky’s two most popular works, the First Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto, were initially rejected by the greatest virtuosi of his country as unplayable fiascos.

“...Utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable. Certain passages are so commonplace and awkward they could not be improved, and the piece as a whole was bad, trivial, vulgar.” This was the verdict of Nikolay Rubinstein, first director of the Moscow Conservatory and one of Tchaikovsky’s mentors, on hearing the composer play his new Piano Concerto on Christmas Eve 1874. The tirade raised Tchaikovsky’s hackles, and he refused to change a single note (although in later editions he made some minor modifications). But with Rubinstein’s negative opinion, he had little chance of mounting a respectable performance – or unbiased reception – in Russia. What has come to the most popular piano concerto by Russia’s most popular composer was premiered in Boston on October 25 1875, with a pick-up orchestra and famed pianist Hans von Bülow, where it was a smashing success.

It is worth remembering that the First Piano Concerto came relatively early in Tchaikovsky's career. Rubenstein had served both as a mentor and first employer to the young composer. Moreover, Tchaikovsky's well-known bouts of depression and sense of alienation because of his homosexuality exacerbated his self-doubts about the quality of his music. It was a personal triumph, therefore, that he managed to withstand Rubinstein's vicious assault.
Although the majestic introduction has become so well known as to be recognizable even to people unfamiliar with classical music, it was revolutionary for its time. It remains unlike any standard introduction in the orchestral repertory, replete with a fully developed theme and a cadenza. 

Introduced by a soft chordal transition, the exposition begins with a melody Tchaikovsky allegedly heard a blind beggar sing at a country fair, but this theme too is hardly touched on again. The two following themes, one for the winds, the other for the strings, become more important for the movement as a whole. The long cadenza is unusually restrained, a fine vehicle for highlighting the pianist’s control of pianissimo.

The second movement opens with a gentle theme on the flute, accompanied by muted strings; the theme is then taken up by the piano with just a single note change. Instead of maintaining the tempo for the middle section of the slow movement, Tchaikovsky quixotically launches into a cadenza of pianistic pyrotechnics as a lead-in to a melody based on a popular cabaret song of the time. 

In the rondo finale Tchaikovsky again uses a folk tune in triple meter, but with the accent always on the second beat. As momentum towards the climax builds, the violins sneak in a hint of the main theme of the first movement. In place of a formal solo cadenza, an excited coda with lavish pianistic flourishes concludes the Concerto. 

It is probably fair to ask why this Concerto is such a popular competition piece. In keeping with the composer’s tumultuous emotional life, it requires of the performer a mastery of just about every artistic and technical resource: rapid passages in octaves, abrupt changes in mood, delicate passages of arpeggiated filigree, giant buildups of harmonic and emotional tension, whispered legato pianissimos. Is it any wonder Rubinstein overreacted?

Most recent Stamford Symphony performance: April 29th, 2000

Sergey Rachmaninov, 1873-1943

Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

The premiere performance of Rachmaninov's First Symphony took place in St. Petersburg in 1897. It was a dismal failure, in large part due to the shoddy conducting of Alexander Glazunov, who was drunk. The young composer’s disappointment brought on a severe depression, and for three years Rachmaninov was unable to do any significant composing. Finally, in 1900 he went for therapy and hypnosis to Dr. Nikolay Dahl. The result was one of the first well-known successes of modern psychotherapy. Rachmaninov was consequently able to return to creative work on his Second Piano Concerto, dedicated to Dahl. However, relapses into depression dogged Rachmaninov for the rest of his life. Significantly, all his large instrumental compositions, as well as most of the rest of his oeuvre, are in minor keys. 

Rachmaninov refused to publish the failed symphony and only acknowledged its existence by calling his next one No. 2. The Second Symphony was composed in 1906-07 in Dresden, where Rachmaninov had escaped from the social and professional demands in Russia. This expansive work, reflecting the composer’s love for long Romantic themes, was premiered to great applause with Rachmaninov on the podium in St. Petersburg in January, 1908.

The Symphony opens mysteriously, with a somber slow introduction, the low strings softly introducing a thematic motto that reappears throughout the work. The violins introduce the first theme, a variant of the motto that becomes urgent and driving. A solo clarinet followed by the other woodwinds, introduces the lyrical second theme, answered by murmuring strings. The tension and passion grow, culminating in a series of climaxes accentuated with a liberal use of timpani and ending with a passionate transformation of the first theme as a coda.

The second movement is an energetic scherzo. Two of its most stunning aspects are Rachmaninov’s use of hushed fragments of his principal themes, to make suspenseful transitions between the large sections, and his use of the glockenspiel. Upon the return of the first two themes, Rachmaninov is said to have inserted one of his trademark musical quotations of the plainchant Dies irae, from the Catholic Mass for the Dead. But in this case, we beg to differ with the traditional analysis. While the melodic shape of the eight-note motive is the same, the important intervals are significantly altered and, in fact, outline the skeleton of the first theme rather than introducing symbolic new musical material.
For the beautiful Adagio Rachmaninov created one of his most appealing and extended themes. Unfortunately, Hollywood has had a heyday with it, shredding the lush melody into trivialized fragments. As the movement continues Rachmaninov brings in the theme from the introduction to the first movement. 

The headlong rush of the exultant finale, Allegro vivace, is a wild and festive tarantella. The movement is an expanded sonata form, for which Rachmaninov introduces another broad, lyrical theme for the strings as the second theme. Throughout the movement, fragments of the principal themes of the three preceding movements recur. The movement ends with a joyous coda.

Most recent Stamford Symphony performance:October 8th, 2005

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018