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Piano Concerto No. 4 (Rachmaninoff)

Sergei Rachmaninoff completed his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40 in 1926 and the work currently exists in three versions. Following its unsuccessful premiere he made cuts and other amendments before publishing it in 1928. With continued lack of success, he withdrew the work, eventually revising and republishing it in 1941. The original manuscript version was released in 2000 by the Rachmaninoff Estate to be published and recorded. The work is dedicated to Nikolai Medtner, who in turn dedicated his Second Piano Concerto to Rachmaninoff.

Form

Compared to its predecessors, the Fourth contains sharper thematic profiles along with a refinement of textures in keyboard and orchestra. These qualities do not lead to greater simplicity but to a different sort of complexity. It was also a continuation of Rachmaninoff's long-range creative growth. The Third and the recomposed First Concertos were less heavily orchestrated than the Second. In keeping with its general character, the Fourth is lighter still yet more oblique.

The concerto is written in three movements:

  1. Allegro vivace (G minor)
  2. Largo (C major)
  3. Allegro vivace (G major)

Rachmaninoff had already been making a more extensive use of short thematic motifs and strong rhythmic patterns in his Op. 32 Preludes in place of what was called the "unmentionable restlessness" that made his work, especially the concertos, a distressing experience for some musicians. This refinement of musical language, especially in orchestration, went back at least to The Bells and a more astringent tone was already noticeable in songs like "The Raising of Lazarus," Op. 34 No. 6.

Influences

Modern classical music

What Rachmaninoff heard around him proved that politics was not the only thing that had changed since the October Revolution. Even if he did not like at least some of what he heard, he was at least aware of what Bartók, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Schonberg and Les Six were writing. Even before the revolution, in 1916, Russian crtitc Leonid Sabanaiev noticed a change in Rachmaninoff's style when the composer played eight of his nine Op. 39 Études-Tableaux:

This great talent is now in the period of search. Evidently the individuality originally formed by the composer (the culmination of which I consider to be the extraordinary Second Concerto) has for some reason ceased to satisfy the composer.

The searches of a great talent are always interesting. Although personally I cannot consider Rachmaninov a musical phenomenon of the highest order … nevertheless one senses in him a tremendous inner power, a potentiality that some barrier prevents from emerging fully … his artistic personality contains the promise of something greater than he has yet given us.

Other critics also noticed there is a new angularity and pungency in these Études, along with a more severe, concentrated and deepened mode of expression. This was influenced in part by his study of Scriabin’s music for the memorial recitals he played in 1915; this study would bear further fruit in the works he would write after leaving Russia. Anyone who thinks that Rachmaninov lost his way as a composer would do well to pay close attention to these etudes—they show that he was experimenting restlessly well before the Bolshevik revolution.

Had Rachmaninov stayed in Russia and the Bolsheviks’ rise to power never taken place, the Fourth Piano Concerto probably would have been premiered around 1919, eight years earlier than its actual unveiling. It is also possible that in the fertile creative ground of the composer’s estate of Ivanovka, where many of his major pieces grew to fruition, the concerto might have become a wholly different composition, albeit likely one no less adventurous than what eventually came forth.

Jazz

There was also the jazz influence. Many have noted Rachmaninoff's inspiration from George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, a piece for piano and orchestra completed in 1924, only three years before Rachmaninoff finished his own. His presence at the premiere of the Greshwin Rhapsody on February 12, 1924 is well known. Sometimes less remembered is that he was a faithful and longtime enthusiast of Paul Whiteman's jazz orchestra, which hosted the premeire, even sending his daughter the Whiteman orchestra's newest records every month. Nor did his enthusiasm for jazz end there. He also listened to orchestral jazz by both the black jazz orchestras then playing regularly in New York—those of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington—and would later become an devoted enthuiast of pianist Art Tatum. Tenor John McCormack remembered Rachmaninoff himself playing jazz for his own amusement.

These jazz elements, most felt, were not consistent with Rachmaninoff's previous brooding and dark themes. What they failed to realize was that, though some aspects of the concerto had their roots in Imperial Russia, the piece had been written mainly in New York and finished in Western Europe. The composer was a sharp, intelligent and sensitive man who had naturally been affected by the sights and sounds of the country in which he had resided for the last several years. Any romantic aura had long dissipated.

Overview

The concerto is probably the least known of all Rachamaninoff's piano concertos, but it is frequently performed in Russia. There may be several reasons for this. The structure was criticized for being amorphous and difficult to grasp on a single hearing. Only the second movement (Largo) contains a prominent melody, while the external movements seem to be comprised mainly of virtuosic piano runs and cadenzas. Like most of Rachmaninoff's late works, the concerto has a daring chromaticism and a distinctive jazzy quality.

Composition

Rachmaninoff left Russia with his family on December 23, 1917 for a concert date in Stockholm, Sweden, never to return. Life as an émigré with a wife and two daughters to support meant that composition was out of the question, at least for a while. He also needed time to renew himself. It can be that months, if not years of meditation become condensed into a score that may last only a short period of time, and Rachmaninoff had composed intensely during much of his career in Russia. Aside from the requirements of his pianistic career, it may have been more dignified for Rachmaninoff to endure a period of creative silence than to merely repeat what he had written before. If his subsequent compositions were to be relevant to his new situation, he needed time to learn and explore the parameters of what that situation actually was.

In Dresden, where he had done much composing in the past, Rachmaninoff began to think specifically about composing again. He then wrote his friend and fellow exile Nikolai Medtner, "I've already started to work. Am moving slowly. After eight years of touring, he took a sabbatical at the end of 1925, working on the Fourth Concerto. He may have begun this work as early as 1914, according to the April 12 issue of Muzyka. While Rachmaninoff had gone to Ivanova earlier than usual that year, in March, he did not return to Moscow that October with a finished composition, which was his usual custom. All he reportedly had were three sketch books and various separate sheets of manuscript paper. The composer brought this material with him from Russia in 1917; it is now housed in the Library of Congress. He may have also tinkered with sketches in his early years in the United States. Although composition at that time was for the most part out of the question, sketches for the finale of the concerto are on the back of the manuscript sheets of his cadenza for Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. These sheets are also at the Library of Congress.

Though he made a good start at the piece, he was also interrupted numerous times—not the least of which being the sudden death of his son-in-law, who had been married to his daughter Irina less than a year. With this tragedy and other challenges which arose, Rachmaninoff did not finish the work until the end of the following August. On top of this, Rachmaninoff’s normally self-critical tendencies started working overtime. He wrote to Medtner on September 8:

Just before leaving Dresden I received the copied piano score of my new concerto. I glanced at its size – 110 pages – and I was terrified. Out of sheer cowardice I haven’t yet checked its time. It will have to be performed like the Ring: on several evenings in succession. And I recalled my idle talk with you on the matter of length and the need to abridge, compress, and not be loquacious. I was ashamed!

Rachmaninoff saw two specific problems with the work: the third movement, which he found too drawn out, and the fact that the orchestra is almost never silent throughout the piece (although the latter tendency is fully in evidence in the composer’s Second Concerto, as well). He concluded that he would have to make cuts in the score. Rachmaninoff had made changes to works in the past, after he had heard or performed them. This was the first time he made cuts in a composition before it had been performed. Along with his having been away from the composer's desk for several years, this insecurity in deciding how his ideas should be expressed may account for what some critics considered the fractured nature of the Fourth when they heard it.

Medtner replied five days later:

I cannot agree with you, either in the particular fear that your concerto is too long, or in general on your attitude to length. Actually, your concerto amazed me by the fewness of its pages, considering its importance…. Naturally, there are limitations to the lengths of musical works, just as there are dimensions for canvasses. But within these human limitations, it is not the length of musical compositions that creates an impression of boredom, but it is rather the boredom that creates the impression of length.

The pianist Josef Hofmann, another friend to whom he showed the score, also encouraged him, saying he liked the new concerto extremely well and hoped, while its frequent metric changes might make playing the piece with an orchestra difficult, that it would not prove an obstacle to future performances. "It certainly deserves them from a musical as well as a pianistic point of view.

The concerto was premiered in Philadelphia on March 18, 1927, with the composer as soloist and Leopold Stokowski leading the Philadelphia Orchestra. After a second performance on March 19, Rachmaninov performed the work with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in New York on March 22.

Reception

Critical reaction was universally scathing, prompting the most vitriolic reviews Rachmaninoff had received since the premiere of his First Symphony in 1897. In some ways, this should have been expected, especially by the composer. It can easily be compared to reaction to the late works of Debussy, Faure and Roussel. These men, like Rachmaninoff, had been labeled as conservatives. They all made subsequent developments wholly integral to their compositional styles which were considered by critics as a weakening of creative power rather than as a refinement of it. Moreover, Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto was panned initially for not being a near-copy of its predecessor. Together, these two pieces gave the impression of a compositional norm from which Rachmaninoff was not expected to depart. At the same time, the romanticism of these works would have been fatuous in light of what people like Rachmaninoff had recently gone through before leaving Russia.

In any case, Lawrence Gilman, who had written the program notes for the concerto, complained in the Herald Tribune,

The new work is neither so expressive nor so effective as its famous companion in C minor. Nor is it so resourceful in development. There is thinness and monotony in the treatment of the thematic material of the slow movement, and the finale begins to weary before its end. The imposing, the seductive Rachmaninoff is still the unashamed and dramatizing sentimentalist of the Second Concerto.

Pitts Sanborn of the Telegram, rivaling César Cui’s rancor of 30 years earlier, called the concerto “long-winded, tiresome, unimportant, in places tawdry.” Nor did he stop there:

The concerto in question is an interminable, loosely knit hodge-podge of this and that, all the way from Liszt to Puccini, from Chopin to Tchaikovsky. Even Mendelssohn enjoys a passing compliment. The orchestral scoring has the richness of nougat and the piano part glitters with innumerable stock trills and figurations. As music it is now weepily sentimental, now of an elfin prettiness, now swelling toward bombast in a fluent orotundity. It is neither futuristic music nor music of the future. Its past was a present in Continental capitals half a century ago. Taken by and large—and it is even longer than it is large—this work could fittingly be described as super-salon music. Mme. Cécile Chaminade might safely have perpetrated it on her third glass of vodka.

The relative modernity of the Fourth Concerto as presented in 1927 did not stem primarily from a higher level of disonance compared to the Second and Third Concertos but from its inherent compositional attitude. Its formal structures were more elliptical than those of its predecessors. Its musical statements shifted more, were less direct. The elusiveness of some themes was heightened by the overt directness of others. Had the recomposed version of Rachmaninoff's First Piano Concerto been better known at that time—the last major work the composer had finished before leaving Russia and one that some critics have suggested should be considered the actual Third Concerto, with its occasional brusqueness and abrupt transitions—listeners would have been better prepared to know what to expect. Nevertheless, while the concerto contained much that was new, it just as fully followed on from what had been done before. Therefore, it should have been exactly what was expected.

More cuts

It was unfortunate that Rachmaninoff became discouraged by the "failure" of the Fourth Concerto, both in its original and later in its revised form. Some argue that he had overreacted as a young man over the reaction over his First Symphony, so his reaction over the concerto was not a surprise. Nonetheless, after the initial performances, Rachmaninoff made cuts and other revisions, reducing the first movememt from 367 to 346 bars and the finale from 567 to 476 bars; he also removed a few bars from the central Largo. Altogether, he shortened the piece from 1016 to 902 bars. This was the state in which the concerto was published in 1928 by the composer's publishing firm TAIR in Paris. The work has several performances in Boston in 1929 and in Europe the following year. These were no more successful than the initial performances. Rachmaninoff, more discouraged, withdrew the work until he had time to rework the piece more thoroughly.

Some critics have argued that, as with his Second Piano Sonata, Rachmaninoff got everything about the Fourth Concerto right the first time. They find it extremely disappointing that he yielded to adverse opinion, repeatedly making changes weakening what had initially been a powerfully original work. While these revisions might imply an undue willingness to compromise, the motivation for making those changes may have been incomprehension. Rachmaninoff himself may simply have not fathomed the true nature of this composition, especially when it was first performed. Others have argued that Rachmaninoff did not go far enough in his revisions. They claim that had he tackled the basic structural deficiencies of the work, it might have been received more sympathetically than it actually was.

Revision

Though Rachmaninoff talked about revisiting the Fourth Concerto after finishing the Third Symphony, he put off going over the score until 1941, 15 years after initially completing it. It thus became the last original composition on which he worked. While not changing the basic thematic material, Rachmaninoff revised the orchestration, simplified the piano writing in the central largo, and thoroughly overhauled the finale. He also made additional cuts to the ones he had made in 1928. He reduced the first movement from 346 to 313 bars, the slow movement from 80 to 77 bars and, most invasively, the finale from 476 to 434 bars. This brought the complete work from 902 to 824 bars. He also recast much of the music to dispense with unnecessary themes and create a more compact structure.

That fall, Rachmaninoff premiered the revised Fourth, again in Philadephia but with Eugene Ormandy conducting. Edwin Schloss wrote in his review for the Philadelphia Record,

The Fourth Concerto as heard yesterday is a revision of a work first heard here 14 years ago from Rachmaninoff’s hands. The revision, which is extensive, was made last summer and yesterday’s performance was the concerto’s first anywhere in its present form. It turned out to be nobly-meant and darkly romantic music, somewhat fragmentary in shape and typically Rachmaninoffian in spirit. And, with all due respect to the great artist who wrote it, and for all its fine pianism, a trifle dull. Its playing, however, added up to news in any season—news that becomes increasingly miraculous as the years go by, namely, that for all his 68 years, Rachmaninoff is still one of the most virile and brilliant young pianists before the public today.

Ormandy and Rachmaninoff played the revised Fourth, with the Second Symphony, in Washington, Baltimore, and eventually New York, as well as recording the work for RCA. Still, Rachmaninoff was never fully satisfied with the work, continuing to tinker with the orchestration even in the days immediately before his recording session with Ormandy, and lamenting that he did not find the time to reorchestrate the piece to his satisfaction. Many of these changes never found their way into the printed score; however, they have made it onto recordings by other pianists who have studied the composer's own recording, including Vladimir Ashkenazy, Stephen Hough, Leonard Pennario and Earl Wild.

Whatever might be thought about the 1941 revision, there is an elimination of rhetoric and ornamentation. Moreover, there is a sharper demand on involvement from the soloist than in some parts of the Third Concerto. The exposition of the finale is an especially fine instance of the architectural quality of rhythm in the performance of this work. Altogether, the immese virtuosity of the finale on the whole is not showy passagework to please audiences. It is hectic, full of action, unstoppable in its energy and power.

Manuscript version

In 2000 the Rachmaninoff Estate authorized Boosey & Hawkes, with the expert assistance of Robert Threlfall, to publish the uncut 1926 manuscript version of the Fourth Concerto. Ondine Records recorded the work with pianist Alexander Ghindin and the Helsinki Philharmonic under Vladimir Ashkenazy. The fact the uncut manuscript was published drew considerable interest because Rachmaninoff's alterations of the Second Symphony and Second Piano Sonata in the 1930's were actually detrimental to those pieces. Rachmaninoff's changes in those works essentially came down to large cuts, a number of minor textural rewritings and only a few newly composed segments to attempt cementing a fragmented structure. Access to the manuscript of the Fourth Piano Concerto could therefore show what the composer may have initially had in mind, structurally speaking, and what he might have obfuscated in the process of revision.

Formally, the manuscript version has been called much closer to the Third Piano Concerto than to its subsequent revisions. After studying all three versions, conducting two and playing one, Ashkenazy concluded that, in principle, he preferred the manuscript edition. His main reason for this was that the Finale worked much better in the manuscript version, since the second subject is repeated. Even so, he does not consider the movement an unqualified success:

It might have been better if Rachmaninoff had rewritten the entire movement. And even as it is, what if Rachmaninoff had not cut it up but just modified the end? Perhaps he could have introduced this wonderful second subject to work it up to a kind of coda—not necessarily as glorifying as in the Third Piano Concerto, but still elegantly (because the harmonies are absolutely wonderful there) and end brilliantly. Maybe that would have made it.

Notable in the manuscript version is a more violent set of musical contrasts. Especially in the Finale, these juxtapositions result in some strident episodes absent from either of the revisions. Because of Rachmaninoff's removeal of these contrasts, the manuscript has been called a missed culmination in Rachmaninoff's development. Instead, he started writing in clearer musical forms, like those in the Third Symphony and Symphonic Dances.

Also, in the Finale, the appearance of the Dies Irae is not a cause of fright or dread. Instead it prominently heads the second subject, which in both musical gesture and Dies-Irae-related content greatly resembles the triumphant second subject from the Finale of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony. While this similarity may not have been intended, a reference to the coda from The Bells at the end of the Finale's exposition section may be more deliberate. None of these instances were left in the composer's 1941 edition.

Selected Recordings

Manuscript version

  1. Alexander Ghindin, pianist, with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, recorded in 2001.

1928 version

  1. William Black, pianist, with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Igor Buketoff, recorded in 1992.

1941 version

  1. Sergei Rachmaninoff, pianist, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, recorded in 1941.
  2. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, pianist, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Ettore Gracis, recorded in 1957.
  3. Earl Wild, pianist, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jascha Horenstein, recorded in 1965.
  4. Vladimir Ashkenazy, pianist, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn, recorded in 1972.
  5. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, recorded in 1996.
  6. Boris Berezovsky, pianist, with Dmitri Liss conducting the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded in 2006.

Bibliography

  • Bertensson, Sergei and Jay Leyda, with the assistance of Sophia Satina, Sergei Rachmaninoff—A Lifetime in Music (Washington Square, New York: New York University Press, 1956)). ISBN n/a.
  • Harrison, Max, Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings (London and New York: Contunnum, 2005). ISBN 0-8264-5344-9.
  • Matthew-Walker, Robert, “Arms of Steel, Heart of Gold,” International Piano Quarterly, No. 11 (Spring 2000).
  • Mattnew-Walker, Robert, Rachmaninoff (London and New York: Omnibus Press, 1980). ISBN 0-89524-208-7.
  • Norris, Gregory, Rachmaninoff (New York: Schirmer Books, 1993). ISBN 0-02-870685-4.
  • Norris, Gregory, ed. Stanley Sadie, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: MacMillian, 1980), 20 vols. ISBN 0-333-23111-2.
  • Pigott, Patrick, Rachmaninov Orchestral Works (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974).

Notes

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