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Even though Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Fourth is the last of his piano concerti, it is very much music from a composer-in-process – an unusual fact considering that Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was 54 years old at the time of its premiere and already had the successes of his second and third piano concerti under his belt. Since the days of those enormous works, however, much had happened, both in Rachmaninoff’s life and in the life of the world. Encroaching Soviet activity in the composer’s native Russia had finally forced him to leave the country for good, emigrating to New York. Furthermore, the very face of music was changing: the Romantic idioms that had made Rachmaninoff such a success at the Moscow Conservatory some 35 years earlier were being swept away by the changing winds of impressionism, serialism, and other means of creating music.
It should be no surprise, then, that the Fourth paints a picture of a composer in transition. If we listen closely enough, we can hear shadows of the upcoming Paganini Rhapsody, as well as faint echoes of many of the compositional trends of the time. Part of the reason for this new sound must have been Rachmaninoff’s prolonged absence from the composer’s desk as he took on seasons of extensive worldwide concertizing. Rachmaninoff the pianist had returned in full force, and the resulting piano concerto is, as with the three preceding it, a rather weighty technical gift from one performer to another.
Rachmaninoff took nearly two years to compose the concerto, and the work that finally emerged was unusually long – so much so that he joked to the dedicatee of the concerto, Nikolai Medtner, that performances would have to be split up over several nights in the manner of Wagner’s Ring. Because of this, the composer made an almost frantic series of cuts shortly before the premiere, hoping to make the work more approachable. But critical reaction was exactly the opposite: after its premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski (Rachmaninoff was at the piano), critics bemoaned the work’s structure, finally abandoning it as a jumbled mess. Rachmaninoff was devastated. The critics’ words so resembled the epithets leveled at his First Symphony that, as with that work, Rachmaninoff spent several years away from composing.
But what the critics couldn’t know is just how forward-thinking Rachmaninoff’s work was – how it not only reflected new compositional techniques within Rachmaninoff’s established Romantic idiom, but also how it displayed shades of a composer to come. The first movement launches immediately into fire and furor, but not the bombast of Rachmaninoff’s previous concerti. Thematic development here is not as consistent as in his previous works, either, and the result is the meandering sound that was so panned by the critics. Still, the writing retains the flavor of Rachmaninoff’s epic signature; and with the impending arrival of the epic film score, the ending can be heard as positively cinematic.
The second movement may hold the most interest: its melancholy, introspective opening for piano alone leads into rich and poignant chords that surely must have echoed some of the new jazz Rachmaninoff was hearing in the streets of New York. It is here that outside influences appear the most; in addition to these piquant harmonies, there is also the faintest hint of an impressionist shimmer in Rachmaninoff’s treatment of the piano. String textures are supple here, a beautiful underpinning for the piano’s sparse chords. A lazy trill and glissando, accompanied by timpani, bring the movement to a graceful close.
The third movement opens with sudden fury, then dies down to reveal the piano in a wildly promising cadenza. What follows is an elegant, festive rollercoaster of a melody; it may meander a bit (the result of all that last-minute revision), but it still has its moments of exhilaration, and like all good Rachmaninoff melodies, it is music to be immersed in and carried away by. The piano seems never to tire, carrying on unceasingly – and brilliantly – to a short, sweet close.
— Jessica Schilling has written for The Denver Post and the Boulder Daily Camera and is the Assistant Editor of Hollywood Bowl Magazine.