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.

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