Festival offers a chance to hear rare Rachmaninov
EARLIER this year I reviewed a new CD recording of some of Rachmaninov’s piano music. It was relatively unusual in that it featured two pianists on two pianos in repertoire that is seldom heard in the concert hall. The playing on the disc was absolutely outstanding. The music was performed by the peerless Canadian pianists Louis Lortie and Helene Mercier and the repertoire, which focused on Rachmaninov’s two Suites for two pianos, was both glittering and ravishing. The Suites were quite early Rachmaninov, but it was already striking how many seeds of the composer’s later, more lush compositional style were taking root. I gave it a very positive write-up, which culminated thus: I described the recording as a “must-have” disc, especially for the two Suites. Why? “Two-piano concerts are a rarity for economical and logistical reasons,” I declared. “It’s probably the only way you’ll get to hear them.”
My ouija board, clearly, was malfunctioning that day six months ago. Just a few months later, Edinburgh Festival director Fergus Linehan unveiled the highlights of this year’s programme, and lo, what was there? A rare performance of Rachmaninov’s Two Suites for two pianos in the Queen’s Hall morning series this coming Monday at 11am. It should be a corker as it will team up Daniil Trifonov, pianistic flavour of the decade, and his mentor, Armenian Sergei Babayan. If that name sounds familiar to Scotland’s musiclovers, it might be because Babayan was the winner of the Scottish International Piano Competition in 1992.
But the show, for me, an event I will not miss for any reason, is about Rachmaninov himself and his music. He was one of the great pianists and, at the end of the day, my desert island recordings of his concertos are those that feature the composer himself as pianist, and I’ll come back to that in a moment. He was not only one of the great Romantic composers, he was, some might argue, the last great composer in the Russian Romantic tradition.
I’ve heard him dismissed as an out-ofplace old Romantic who lived until 1943 apparently oblivious to the 20th century musical revolutions, from Debussy to Stravinsky to Bartok and beyond, and which had impacted not one jot on the development of his own music. My own view is an unsophisticated one. I think Rachmaninov found his own voice and a way to make it work in pianistic, symphonic and orchestral terms. It was entirely consistent with the style and colour and Russian-ness of every influence that was in his musical DNA, through the rich concerto and symphonic idioms he explored and exploited. What he did, to my ears, my mind and my spirit was entirely valid and had colossal integrity, far beyond the confines of narrow labelling of any stylistic species.
In symphony and concerto forms, he reinvented a way of making them fresh, relevant and questing. That went on right to the end of his life. In the late Symphonic Dances, he is at once exploring new symphonic ground while retaining an anchor-like grip on the fundamentals of integrated orchestral composition. And there is an extraordinary unity to be heard in those Symphonic Dances. Perhaps oddly (it’s just my own perception) I hear that unity even more definitively in the arrangement of the piece made by the composer for two pianos which was premiered by Rachmaninov himself with Horowitz. Ye gods, can you imagine what an occasion that must have been: how I wish that Trifonov and Babayan, taking advantage of there being two pianos in the Queen’s Hall, might have been playing that transcription of the Symphonic Dances on Monday, along with the Suites. I’ve heard it once only in live concert, on two pianos, and it is sensational.
There is a wheen of performances of Rachmaninov’s orchestral music coming up in the new orchestral autumn/winter seasons. That’s a matter for consideration in a month or so. But one of the truly great features of Rachmaninov’s music is the fact that we can actually access the composer’s own performances. He was born in 1873 and lived until 1943, well into the era of commercial recording. One of my all-time favourite recordings (mono, of course) is a boxed set of two CDs that contains all four of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos, his dazzling Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and a selection of his solo piano pieces. The orchestra in all the concertos is the Philadelphia Orchestra, the conducting honours are shared by Eugene Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski, and the pianist on everything is Rachmaninov himself. The recordings were made between 1928 and 1941. What a historical document it is.