Brussels Philharmonic | programmme notes: The monumental years

Rachmaninov & Ravel

programme notes


Maurice Ravel Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2 (1913)
Sergei Rachmaninov
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30 (1909)

[read also: Rachmaninov Festival]
[discover also: Rachmaninov Deconstructed]
[discover also: festival schedule]
[all programme notes]


11.11.2023 FLAGEY

The monumental years

One of the best-known photos of Rachmaninov is one taken in the summer of 1910, where he is sitting on a bench at a little round table, putting the finishing touches on his Third Piano Concerto. The photo was taken at Ivanovka, Rachmaninov’s summer house in the southern Russian steppe. From his teen years, Rachmaninov and his cousins spent every summer on this estate, which belonged to his uncle and aunt, Alexander Satin and Varvara Satina. He married one of his cousins, Natalya Satina, in 1902. The annex to the domain was their wedding present. Every summer, Rachmaninov returned there to draw inspiration from the surroundings and to be able to compose in peace and quiet, far from the bustle of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. One of the compositions that saw the light of day there was his Third Piano Concerto.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and Rachmaninov never met. And although they were contemporaries, their styles could not be more different: Rachmaninov clung to opulent Romanticism, while Ravel was more interested in experimentation and innovation. Ravel found inspiration for new tonal colours in the music of Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, among others. And thanks to the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the music of composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin and Rachmaninov became known in France. It was mainly the productions with the Ballets Russes that met with great success with audiences.

Maurice Ravel: poetic love portraits

Ravel composed his ballet Daphnis et Chloé in 1912, just before the outbreak of the First World War. He wrote it at the request of Sergei Diaghilev for the first season of his Ballets Russes in Paris. The dance scenario was by the choreographer Mikhail (Michel) Fokine, who based it on the pastoral romance by the Greek poet Longus. The story takes place in second-century Arcadia and depicts the idyllic love story between the goatherd Daphnis and the lovely shepherdess Chloé. When she is abducted by pirates, Daphnis sets out to find her. He falls unconscious, and during his sleep, Chloé is freed by the god Pan. As day breaks, the lovers are reunited.

The ballet is one of Ravel’s largest works – in addition to a gigantic orchestra, there is also a choir that appears both on stage and backstage; he spent almost three years working on it. The première was repeatedly postponed, among other things because of a difference in vision between Ravel and Fokine. Ravel had a grandiose musical fresco in mind, on analogy with the Greek landscapes by French painters at the end of the 18th century, and that did not fit with the archaic conceptions of the Russian choreographer. Moreover, the dancers were unsatisfied with the limited rehearsal time and the difficult rhythms in the finale.

Even before the première on 8 June 1912, Ravel had reworked the first two scenes of the ballet into a first orchestral suite. The second suite dates from after the première and opens with the famous ‘Lever du jour’, when the two lovers find each other again after sunrise. With this work, Ravel composed one of the most poetic musical reflections of a natural scene: wood crackles give way to birdsongs, which in turn culminate in a passionate melody. Out of gratitude, in the next three scenes the lovers perform the story of the gods Pan and Syrinx. The whole work ends in a dance of praise for the gods, in the 5/4 rhythm, which gave the dancers so much grief. With Daphnis et Chloé, Ravel did not have a traditional ballet in view – he described the work as a ‘choreographic symphony’ and found that the colour and mood took precedence – and with that, he met with some resistance. One of the members of the audience at the première was Édouard Lalo, and he found that the ballet was lacking an essential element – rhythm. Stravinsky, by contrast, was a fan: “It is not only Ravel’s best work, but also one of the most beautiful products of all French music”.

Piano Concerto No. 3
a calling card for America

Rachmaninov composed his Third Piano Concerto to serve as a calling card for his first concert tour of the United States: “My third concerto was written specially for America, and I was to play it for the first time in New York under Walter Damrosch. Because I didn’t have much time to practise during the preceding summer and was not familiar enough with certain passages, I took a dumb piano with me on the ship and learned it during the crossing.” The concerto was intended to highlight his qualities as a composer and pianist. Rachmaninov thus planned a particularly complex and virtuoso piano part.

The première of this monumental concerto took place on 28 November 1910 in the New Theater in New York with the New York Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch, and was repeated on 30 November. The reactions were rather cool. On 16 January, a new performance followed, this time with Mahler as conductor, and with more success. But the extreme difficulty and the length of the work meant that it took some time for this piano concerto to become as popular as his second. One of the reviews said: “Honesty, simplicity, and clarity in musical thinking […] It possesses a freshness of inspiration that does not strive to discover new paths.” Rachmaninov firmly dismissed the remark that the singing opening melody resembles traditional Russian Orthodox chants: “The theme is not borrowed from a folk song or from church music. It wrote itself. If I had any plan in composing this theme, I was thinking only of sound.”

Be that as it may, the lyrical melody is typical of Rachmaninov. The definitive breakthrough for his third concerto came partly thanks to the 1996 film Shine, about the obsessive fascination of the pianist David Helfgott with the ‘Rach 3’. Since then, this work has found its way on to the standard repertoire of many pianists; over the history of the famous Queen Elisabeth Competition, it has been performed around 25 times.

Shine Poster

Cineflagey: Shine (1996) · 11.11.2023 · Flagey

A biopic about David Helfgott, who, as a young boy, was rigorously trained by his father to become a pianist, but as an adult, suffers a complete breakdown and embarks on a journey through various institutions. Rachmaninov's demanding Piano Concerto No. 3 drives the immensely talented pianist to madness.