Program Notes: Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto

Updated: Apr 29

Friday, October 4, 2019, at 10:30AM

Saturday, October 5, 2019, at 8:00PM


Edo de Waart, conductor

Joyce Yang, piano


RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, op. 30

ELGAR Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major, op. 55


Learn more about the performance here.


SERGEI RACHMANINOFF

Born April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, Russia

Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California


Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, op. 30


Sergei Rachmaninoff

We start with extremes of pianistic virtuosity. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 originated with the Russian-born composer’s first visit to the United States, which he would eventually adopt as his homeland. In accepting an invitation to undertake a concert tour in this country, Rachmaninoff agreed to compose a new piano concerto that he would perform with American orchestras. All through the spring of 1909, various obligations prevented him from working on the piece, and it was not until June that he set to work on it. The composition went smoothly, however, and the concerto was finished before the end of summer. But Rachmaninoff had not had time to learn the demanding solo part before his departure. He therefore brought a practice keyboard along on the voyage, and on this device worked to master the concerto’s intricacies. This unusual method proved sufficient. Rachmaninoff played the concerto with consistent success throughout his American tour. A particularly notable performance occurred on January 16, 1910, at Carnegie Hall in New York, when the orchestra was led by Gustav Mahler.


The challenges that occupied Rachmaninoff during his trans-Atlantic crossing did not go unnoticed as the concerto became known. One of the earliest reviews of the composition noted that its “extreme difficulties bar it from performance by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers.” The work has indeed become famous as an Everest for pianists, so much so that it served as an emblem for daunting pianistic challenge in Shine, the film about the Australian pianist David Helfgott. Apart from its obvious virtuosity, the concerto’s musical character derives chiefly from two traits that inform Rachmaninoff’s output as a whole: an unabashedly lush and effusive Romanticism, and a certain Russian melancholy.


The composer establishes the latter quality at the very outset of the work, with a theme given out by the piano as a spare melodic line over minimal orchestral accompaniment. The minor-mode contours of this subject suggest an old Russian song or Russian Orthodox Church chant, though Rachmaninoff insisted that it “is borrowed neither from folk song nor from liturgical sources. It simply wrote itself.” A brief solo passage and orchestral interlude precede the appearance of the second subject, a warmly romantic idea announced by the piano alone. The development of these themes leads to a thunderous climax and a long, highly demanding cadenza. An abbreviated reprise of the initial subject then brings the movement to a quiet conclusion.


The ensuing Intermezzo is imbued with that peculiarly Russian melancholy Rachmaninoff expressed so well. The finale, which follows without pause, is the concerto’s most spirited movement, and it provides a dazzling display of keyboard virtuosity. Rachmaninoff recalls some of the thematic ideas from the opening movement, then concludes the concerto with a soaring coda.


First performance: November 28, 1909, New York, Walter Damrosch conducting the

New York Symphony Orchestra with the composer as soloist

SLSO premiere: January 27, 1928, Bernardino Molinari conducting with Vladimir Horowitz

as soloist

Most recent SLSO performance: April 23, 2017, John Storgårds conducting with Nikolai Lugansky as soloist

Scoring: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbal), strings

Performance time: Approximately 39 minutes

EDWARD ELGAR

Born June 2, 1857, Broadheath, England

Died February 23, 1934, Worcester, England


Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major, op. 55


Edward Elgar

Edward Elgar was past the age of 50 and at the height of his powers when he at last produced the symphony for which his friends and admirers had long been hoping. The creative mastery that the composer now commanded had not come easily. From late adolescence, Elgar worked as a musical journeyman, teaching violin and piano, playing in local orchestras, occasionally conducting, and writing pieces for musicians in his area whenever he could. As a composer he was almost entirely self-taught, and his early musical essays were hardly distinguished. But Elgar persevered, developing assurance and skill through that most honest of methods: trial and error.


In 1898, Elgar began writing a symphony. Whether because he really felt that there was no financial justification for the endeavor or because he was not yet sufficiently confident in his handling of large-scale orchestral composition, he soon abandoned this project. But the following year, his Enigma Variations, symphonic in stature if not in form, was performed to great acclaim in London. The success of this piece must have removed much of Elgar’s doubt as to his readiness for symphonic composition. The subsequent completion of several oratorios and some smaller orchestral pieces provided further preparation. Finally, Elgar began sketching a new symphony in the summer of 1907 and finished it in September 1908.


The premiere performance, which took place in December of the same year, in Manchester, was perhaps Elgar’s greatest public triumph. The audience burst into applause after the Adagio and again at the close of the work, calling the composer repeatedly to the stage to receive their accolades. Hans Richter, the celebrated conductor who led the performance, pronounced the piece “the greatest symphony of modern times, and not only in this country.”


The Music

Listeners who associate Elgar only with the straightforward, relatively simple music of his popular Pomp and Circumstance March, or even the genial musical portraits of friends and family presented in the Enigma Variations, may be surprised at the thoughtful construction and complex sentiments of this symphony.


Despite its considerable length, this is a tightly knit work, thanks to thematic links between the first and final movements and between the two inner movements. The most important subject appears immediately following the anticipatory drum roll of the opening measures. This melody, at once march-like and hymn-like, dominates the slow introduction of the first movement and serves as a “motto” theme for the entire symphony. Its character, aptly described by Elgar’s expression marking as “noble and simple,” is sharply contradicted by the impassioned Allegro that follows. Here the mood is one of agitation, despite the appearance of several lyrical subsidiary melodies. Contrast is provided mainly in two brief references to the opening motto theme during the development section, and by the triumphant return of that idea during the closing coda section.


The second movement begins as a nervous, scurrying scherzo, proceeds to a slightly sinister march passage, and arrives at a pastoral episode scored for violins, harp, and flute. These varied ideas are then juxtaposed and combined, leading without pause to the Adagio.

The smooth transition is no accident, for this third movement is really an extension and transformation of the second. The theme announced by the strings in the opening measures is composed of the very same notes as the running passage heard at the start of the scherzo, though its more relaxed tempo and rhythm render it almost unrecognizable as such. Deeply poignant and tender, this music is the heart of the symphony, and more than one commentator has compared its religious serenity to the great adagios of Beethoven.


The finale returns to the restless drama, and to some of the thematic material, of the symphony’s opening. Both the angular melody heard as a bass clarinet solo at the beginning of the prefatory Lento section and the motto theme, which soon appears in the strings, are recollections of the initial movement. As in the opening portion of the symphony, the slow introduction gives way to an intense Allegro. The music drives forcefully to its climax, at which point the motto theme once again appears, emerging majestically in the winds while string figures swirl ecstatically around it.


First performance: December 3, 1908, Manchester, England, Hans Richter conducting The Hallé Orchestra

SLSO premiere: February 20, 1975, Alexander Gibson conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: November 14, 2009, Sir Andrew Davis conducting

Scoring: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum), 2 harps, strings

Performance time: Approximately 50 minutes


Program notes by Paul Schiavo

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