Maestro Klein's Program Notes October 2019 - Joyce Yang plays Rachmaninoff

PSO Program Notes - October, 2019


Any large-scale piece by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) must be seen in the perspective of the composer's relationship to the Soviet government, which suppressed much of his music and oppressed him personally through many periods of his life. But this music is an exception, written in haste (just three days!) to help a friend, the Bolshoi conductor Vassili Nebolsen, who desperately needed a concert-opener for a program celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the October Revolution. Shostakovich is said to have modeled this piece on another iconic, patriotic Russian overture, Glinka's fabulous Russlan and Ludmilla, written a hundred years before. It has the same breezy, spirited tone and exuberant optimism, un-tinged by the (justified) bitterness of some of Shostakovich's music.

It opens with a flashy brass fanfare, like herald trumpets inviting guests into a festival. Then it blazes into a series of brisk and light-hearted tunes in woodwind and strings, bringing back both the fanfare and the melodies at the end in wonderful counterpoint. Shostakovich was right in thinking that this was a terrific concert-opener. Ironically, the first performance of this testimonial to Russia, written in service to the governing apparatchiks, was somehow delayed seven years until after Stalin's death.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) lived with wrenching emotional and spiritual tumult throughout his life. Perhaps the greatest virtuoso of his time, he felt compelled to perform at a frenetic pace to maximize his earning power, sacrificing the time he craved for composing. He lived with obsessions and neuroses, and was haunted by fear of death.

And he sensed a natural kinship with the most mesmerizing virtuoso of the previous century, a fellow exile, Niccolo Paganini. Paganini not only revolutionized violin playing, but also changed forever the concept of performing music in public, making himself into the first virtuoso superstar of the Romantic era. He wrote pieces so difficult that he alone was capable of playing them. His oddly elongated body (it is thought that both Rachmaninoff and Paganini may have had Marfan Syndrome, with especially long legs and fingers) and his unearthly virtuosity created a ghostly image. Legends abounded that he had sold his soul to the devil for his brilliance, which added to his mythic status, not to mention his ticket sales. The Catholic Church looked unfavorably at his Lothario reputation and even viewed his name (meaning "little pagan") as suspicious and refused him a church burial after his death.

The apotheosis of Paganini's violin mastery is his 24th Caprice for solo violin, a perfect realization of the violin technique and musicianship that he invented. Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Szymanowski, Ysaÿe, Benny Goodman, Andrew Lloyd Weber and hundreds of other composers have based works on the 24th Caprice.

 Rachmaninoff squeezed only six major compositions into the last 25 years of his life, and his sense of connection to Paganini made this iconic musical fragment a perfect focus at a time when he found a happy new home in Switzerland, and a bit of time for composing. The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, was written in a flash of inspiration, Rachmaninoff working on it "literally from morn to night" over about six peaceful weeks of the summer of 1934. Paganini's 24th Caprice builds 24 variations on this driving melody:

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Like Paganini, Rachmaninoff creates 24 variations on this theme, but this time scored for piano solo and a large, colorful orchestra. Many of the variation are re-workings of just the first seven notes of the theme (which appears in its original form only after an introduction and one variation). And the musical signature that occurs in almost every Rachmaninoff composition, the fateful Dies Irae from the Latin Mass for the Dead, plays a huge role here, a repeated counterpoint to Paganini's theme and an undercurrent of dread suffusing the music, recalling Rachmaninoff's obsession with death.

Dies Irae:

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One can think of this Rhapsody as a form of piano concerto (it would have been Rachmaninoff's fifth if he had chosen to call it that) in the sense that it is organized in three parts, like the typical concerto: (1) mostly fast and dramatic (up to Variation 10), (2) slow and lyrical, culminating in the iconic and lyrical 18th Variation, and (3) the fast and furious final six variations.

And about that gorgeous and memorable 18th Variation, which has appeared in so very many films and television shows. Here is how this melody derives from the 24th Caprice: if you take the five main recognizable notes of the theme:

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and turn them upside down, you get:

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This is the main unit of this ravishing melody.

The Paganini Rhapsody was a huge success in its first performance (unlike so many of his earlier premieres), with Rachmaninoff at the piano and Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in Baltimore, and remains a touchstone of the repertoire. 

The early personal and compositional struggles of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) were in the past as the now-acclaimed 55-year-old master approached his fourth and last symphonic composition in 1885.  The next generation of great symphonic composers, led by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, had proclaimed his preeminence, and he was beginning to consider retiring. He approached the writing of this work as a consolidation of all his knowledge and craft. Finally out of the shadow of Beethoven, he molded movement forms that were more original and personal. And he brought the Symphony No. 4, Op. 98 to its culmination in the last movement by referring back that other member of the "3 B's," Johann Sebastian Bach, using Bach's chaconne theme from his cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (For Thee, O Lord, I long).

This symphony is the synthesis of the highest level of architectural craftsmanship and sublime expressivity. It rewards theoretic study to the ultimate degree, but also speaks to the listener with visceral urgency and passion.  It is one of the great artistic testaments of the Romantic Era.

Brahms' sublime gift for heart-stopping melody is present throughout, in the swaying, push-pull theme of the first movement that builds to a furious climax, the soaring horn tune that dominates the second movement, the sprightly, humorous scherzo dance of the third movement or the solemn passacaglia theme (borrowed from Bach) that is ever-present in the final movement.

First Movement:

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Second Movement:

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Third Movement:

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Fourth Movement:

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Each movement is shaped in an original manner, but the second and fourth movements are particularly novel and creative.

The majestic horn theme that begins the second movement is present almost throughout the movement, transformed along the way into a host of different moods, and making a structure that is an amalgam of two conventional forms - sonata form, and theme and variations. The result is a sweep of evolving emotions that holds the listener in its thrall.

The fourth movement is unique in symphonic literature, a testament to Brahms' compositional mastery and a breathtaking musical experience. Repeating Bach's 8-measure harmonized bass-line and harmonic structure over and over, he creates a brilliant passacaglia - a tightly organized series of passages, each one using the same pattern, but with a pace and variety of settings that constantly engage and transport an audience. The final cascade of powerful emotion ends in the minor key, a rare exception for Brahms. This is his final symphonic declaration, and it is breathtaking.

Brahms did ultimately retire from composing a few years later (with just a very few special exceptions - gifts to the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld and piano pieces in memory of his beloved Clara Schumann, who died in May of 1896). Brahms's last public appearance was on March 3, 1897, when he attended a concert in which Hans Richter conducted this music, the Fourth Symphony. There was an ovation after each of the four movements.

Mitchell Sardou Klein

Chelsea Chambers