Denis Matsuev (piano)
The Mariinsky Orchestra
Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Piano Concerto No 1 in F Sharp Minor, Op. 1
Piano Concerto in A minor, Оp. 16
Rachmaninoff was forged from steel and gold: steel in his hands and gold in his heart.
As a seventeen-year-old student of the Moscow Conservatoire, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) began work on his Piano Concerto No 1 in F Sharp Minor in the autumn of 1890. The concerto was completed in 1891 and became the first work that the young composer awarded an opus number. A performance by the composer of the first movement of the concerto together with a student orchestra under the baton of Vasily Safonov (17 March 1892, Small Hall of the Noble Assembly in Moscow) left the audience entranced.
The principal theme of the concerto’s first movement speaks of true Rachmaninoff in terms of passion, drawing us with both its romantic anxiousness and its profound soulfulness. The lyrical slow movement – the glittering finale which combines scherzo and hymn-like qualities – forms a prologue to many works in the mature composer’s style.
Let us examine the opinion of one contemporary; years later, Alexander Ossovsky recalled “I remember that passionate and stormy impulse that shook the concert hall, that impulse with which, after two bars of orchestral unison, Rachmaninoff furiously threw himself at the keyboard of the piano with a rapid flow of octaves in an extreme fortissimo... The monumental range, the scale, the dramatic tension, the fervent pathétique, the captivating and songful lyricism, the imperious power of the rhythm... Here everything foretells of Rachmaninoff as the composer of the brilliant Second and Third Piano Concerti.”
The composer’s lack of satisfaction with the somewhat uneven nature of his youthful opus led to him producing a second version (1917) which has been performed ever since.
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) was and remains to this day Norway’s greatest composer, and the Piano concerto in A Minor he composed at the age of twenty-five is one of the most frequently performed works in the international repertoire. The concerto received the blessing of Franz Liszt, who (as he loved to do) played a work completely and utterly unknown to him directly from the score, approved the music and gave his support to the young composer. Himself a recital pianist (his recordings remain, made in the very first years of the 20th century), Grieg was subsequently to perform the concerto several times. Unfortunately, this work remained the only experiment of its kind: the Second Piano Concerto, commissioned by Peters publishing, was never completed by the composer.
In common with the Romantics, the concerto begins with the soloist – a lyrical hero. Grieg, who had just turned to national romanticism, imbued this first solo with a vivid national flavour, writing it in the harmony widespread exclusively in early 17th century Scandinavian folklore (in minor key, omitting the fifth degree). In turn, the main theme of the finale is halling Norwegian dance. In the combination of lyricism and northern colour, we have the secret of the concerto’s unfading allure. And also in the abundance of musical themes, in as much as the young composer did not consider the use of “wise economy”.
Dance, Ravel, your magnificent dance,
Dance, Ravel! Don’t be downcast, you Spaniard!
“In 1928, at the request of Monsieur Rubinstein, I composed my Boléro for orchestra. It is a dance in a very measured tempo, changing neither melodically, harmoniously nor rhythmically, and yet the rhythm is constantly marked by the beating of the drum. The only element of variety comes with the orchestral crescendo,” Maurice Ravel wrote twenty years later in his Esquisse autobiographique.
Valentin Serov, who painted a well-known portrait of Ida Rubinstein after falling under the spell of her interpretation of the roles of Cleopatra and Schéhérazade with Diaghilev’s company, said that “Egypt and Assyria themselves somehow came back to life with this extraordinary woman.” This time too she enchanted the audience, naturally sharing the glory with the composer and Alexandre Benois who had designed the sets. Here are the words of one person who attended the premiere on 28 November 1928 at the Opéra de Paris together with a performance of La Valse, another of Maurice Ravel’s poèmes symphoniques: “A dimly lit room in a Spanish taverna; along the walls, in the darkness, revellers chatting at the tables; there is a large table in the middle of the room and a dancer begins to dance upon it... The revellers pay her no attention, though gradually they begin to listen and come to life. Slowly they are seized by the obsessive rhythm; they rise and approach the table; stunned, they surround the dancer who ends her performance in triumph...” It was not by chance that Ravel supposed that within this “happy” scene there should also be room for tragedy: the dance includes an episode of the clandestine love of a girl and a toreador who is stabbed by his rival. The music provided weighty justification for this.
From the very start of the piece, in the music one can hear some mysterious anxiety. Restrained and sorrowful, the impossibly long (thirty-four bars!) melody with its unchanging theme becomes an iron-like and persistently repetitive rhythm... When, after the countless repetition of the theme, the sound reaches apocalyptical power, when the melody suddenly begins to disintegrate into individual intonations, when the unexpected shift in tonality literally tears the theme from its steel carcass of rhythm and thrusts it into a chasm of impending catastrophe one has the uncomfortable feeling that the world is collapsing... It was not by chance that one of the composer’s friends, André Suarès, wrote on the anniversary of Ravel’s death that “The obsession of the rhythm and the melody and the clear desire not to vary the theme... was an insistent, almost hallucinogenic repetition of one and the same musical phrase, a gloomy frenzy of music – all of this, in my opinion, transforms the piece into something akin to Songs and Dances of Death.