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Grand Old Russia

Piano Concerto, Op. 20 (1896)
Alexander Scriabin (Moscow, 1872 – Moscow, 1915)

Scriabin and Rachmaninoff met in their early teens, as fellow pupils in the piano studio of Nikolai Zverev in Moscow.  They, along with four or five other boys, were living in Zverev’s house where they had to submit to the professor’s draconian teaching methods.  The youngsters followed a strict regime of many hours of practicing every day, and suffered the frightening tantrums of the master whenever one of them made a mistake.  (Could nomen be omenZver means ‘wild beast’ in Russian...)
    As mature artists, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin were markedly different in temperament:  Rachmaninoff’s style was more grandiose and robust, while Scriabin, a student of mysticism in later days, developed a more complex harmonic language that almost verged on atonality.  Their dissimilarities began to appear early in their careers.  It seems that Rachmaninoff’s strongest influence was Tchaikovsky, who had been a personal mentor, while Scriabin took his cues mostly from Chopin, almost half a century after the Polish composer’s death. 
    It would be interesting to compare Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto (1891) to Scriabin’s only work in that genre (1896), especially since both composers chose the same key, the rarely-used F-sharp minor, as the tonality of their respective efforts.  Both young Russians had an innate gift for melody, yet Rachmaninoff’s extroverted passion contrasted with his colleague’s more  delicate lyricism.
    The best Romantic concertos combine spectacular virtuosity with an abundance of melodic ideas, rich orchestral colors and harmonic diversity—all of which the 23-year-old Scriabin achieved using a strong and distinctive personal voice.  The outer movements, both in ¾ time, are related in the way they bring their gentle opening materials to ringing orchestral climaxes.  They enclose an inward-looking slow movement whose singing theme is followed by four variations, in turn tender and brilliant, and finally by a return to the original theme in slightly modified form.
    The Piano Concerto was Scriabin’s first work with orchestra, and the culmination of his youthful period.  In the years that followed, he composed five symphonies, including the iconic Poem of Ecstasy and the visionary Prometheus: Poem of Fire, works in which his unique personality found its complete expression.

Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-07)
Sergei Rachmaninoff  (Semyonovo, Russia, 1873 – Beverly Hills, California, 1943)

To tell the stories of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s symphonies is to give a capsule biography of the composer.  Each symphony belongs to a different period in Rachmaninoff’s career.  Aside from a student essay of which only the first movement survives, there are three numbered symphonies, plus the choral symphony The Bells.  Together, they illustrate Rachmaninoff’s life-long search to find his true artistic identity.
    By the time he wrote his Symphony No. 1 (in D minor, Op. 13) at the age of 22, Rachmaninoff had already established himself in Russia as one of the most talented musicians of his generation.  Graduated from the Moscow Conservatory with the rarely-awarded Gold Medal, he was widely known both as a prodigious pianist and a promising composer.   His diploma project, the one-act opera Aleko, was performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1892, when Rachmaninoff was only nineteen years old.
    Unexpectedly, the premiere of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony, given in St. Petersburg on March 15, 1897, turned out to be a disaster.  The conductor, Alexander Glazunov, a famous composer and professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, was apparently unsympathetic to the music of a Muscovite (there was an open rivalry between the music schools of the two Russian capitals).  The critics, among them composer Cesar Cui (a former member of the group of the Five), found the symphony seriously flawed, and wrote scathing reviews.  This fiasco thrust the young composer into such a state of depression that for three entire years he was unable to write any music whatsoever.  He only recovered his ability to work thanks to the intervention of a psychiatrist who used hypnosis to restore his self-confidence.
    Even so, and despite the resounding success of his Second Piano Concerto in 1901, it took six more years before Rachmaninoff attempted another symphony.  In the meantime, he was busy as an opera conductor at the Imperial Theatre.  Finally, he made a radical decision, cancelled all his conducting engagements, and left Russia in order to be able to work on his composition projects undisturbed.
    In October 1906, Rachmaninoff, together with his young wife and baby daughter, took up residence in Dresden.  There—and at his summer estate near Moscow—he spent the better part of 1907 working on his Second Symphony.  The new work, premiered in St. Petersburg on February 8, 1908, under the composer’s baton, was well received, and Rachmaninoff confirmed his position as Russia’s leading young composer.
    The Second Symphony marked the beginning of the most productive decade in Rachmaninoff’s entire career, during which he produced the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, the Third Piano Concerto, two great liturgical works (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and Vespers), numerous songs, and piano works, as well as the choral symphony The Bells.  This period ended abruptly with the revolutions of 1917 and Rachmaninoff’s subsequent emigration to the West where his busy performing schedule left little time for composing at first.  It wasn’t until the 1930s that he found the time to write major works again; it was during the last years of his life that such important works as the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Third Symphony were written.

The Second Symphony begins with a Largo introduction whose opening motif, first presented by the cellos and basses, will recur in varied form throughout the symphony.  The main features of this motif are a stepwise motion (first ascending, then descending), and a rhythmic pattern with ties across the barline.  This material dominates both the lengthy introduction and the subsequent main section of the movement.  First soft and subdued, the main theme is gradually transformed through variation and development, and reappears forte played by the full orchestra.  A second melodic idea is based on an alternation between woodwind and strings, and brought to a climax, only to fade back to pianissimo at the end of the exposition.  The beginning of the development section is marked by the return of the main theme as a violin solo.  The theme is soon taken over by the clarinet, and turned into fast-moving figuratons in both winds and strings.  After a new emotional high point, the recapitulation begins, concentrating on the second theme, which appears in E major.  The coda, however, reverts to E minor, the main tonality, and brings the movement to a ringing close.
    The second movement is a scherzo based on two contrasting themes.  The main melody is played first by the horns and then by the violins against a lively rhythmic background.  The second theme, without being a direct quote of the first movement’s main idea, shares with it a stepwise motion and its characteristic rhythm.  It is followed by a return of the first theme.  The Trio, somewhat closer in tempo, also contains two distinct materials:  the first is played staccato (short, separated notes) by the violins, while the second, with brass and percussion as the protagonists, is a mixture of a march and a church hymn, with unexpected off-beat accents.  A return to the first tempo brings back both themes of the main section, but the movement closes with some reminiscences of the march from the Trio.
    The third-movement Adagio begins with an expressive violin theme—one of Rachmaninoff’s most celebrated melodies—followed by a clarinet solo which. once again, uses stepwise motion.  A third idea, played by the first violins, receives a counterpoint from the other strings and the woodwinds, and leads back to the first theme, now heard in a full orchestral fortissimo.  The middle section starts very softly with English horn and oboe solos.  A new climax is reached, soon to recede into a decrescendo and, finally, a long silence.  In the recapitulation the first theme is re-introduced by the horn.  The other two ideas also return, in richer orchestration than before, and contrapuntally combined with parts of the first theme.  Like the second movement, the third also ends with an allusion to material heard in its middle section.
    The Finale (in E major) starts with a fanfare-like theme played fortissimo by the entire orchestra.  It is followed by a transition section for horns, timpani and double bass, which leads into a march for winds (not unlike the one heard in the second movement).  The main theme returns, then gives way to a broad melody, eventually winding down to pianissimo chords over a long-held pedal.  After a short recall of the third movement’s main theme, a development section begins, with mostly new melodic ideas, among which a descending scale gains increasing prominence.  The recapitulation brings back the fanfare, the march, the broad melody, and the descending scale, combining them all in the symphony’s triumphant ending.

Peter Laki



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