During two festival weekends at Flagey, together with Boris Giltburg, we will be highlighting Rachmaninov’s four piano concertos, each accompanied by a piece from a composer who shared a special connection with him.
In addition to these performances, we have plenty of exciting activities planned at and around Flagey every day. For instance, the Vlaams Radiokoor will open the festival with the impressive Vespers at the breathtaking Abbey of La Cambre.
In America, the country where he found refuge after the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninov apparently never really felt at home. His Romantic style was seen as old-fashioned, and the new currents based on jazz, blues and swinging music were not his style. He shifted his focus to his career as a pianist, and composed very little after fleeing Russia: “when I left Russia, I left behind my desire to compose: losing my country, I lost myself also”.
Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto illustrates the struggle and quest for his true musical identity. He had never worked as long and intensively on any other work as this one, or made as many revisions. The result is a concerto that remains faithful to his typical Romantic style but that also shows the American influence of jazz and blues, as well as modern cadenzas and piano runs. And a careful listener will also hear shadows of the later Paganini Rhapsodies.
One person who had no difficulties mixing different musical genres was George Gershwin. The success of his Broadway career heightened his fascination with modern composers such as Schönberg and Stravinsky, and made him long for a synthesis of the two worlds. The fleet-footed symphonic poem An American in Paris combines those worlds like none other.
Sergei Rachmaninov was born with the exceptional combination of strong musical genes and a solid portion of extraordinary talent – which was soon noticed. Immediately after finishing his studies, he was recognised as a fully-fledged composer, and one of the most impressive works of his young years was his First Piano Concerto.
Yet Rachmaninov would later be critical of this work of his youth (he was barely 18 when he wrote it), and reworked it in 1917. The concerto combines the virtuosity, lyrical melodies and dramatic power of the young Rachmaninov with the refinement and nuance of an experienced composer – and some truly challenging passages for the pianist.
Rachmaninov had a complicated relationship with his fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which was in turns friendly and tense. Rachmaninov had been a student of Rimsky-Korsakov in his young years, and although he was grateful to his teacher, he also felt hemmed in by the latter’s strict 'Russian' style. Scheherazade, by far Rimsky-Korsakov’s best-known work, is infused with Russian orientalism – and yet Rachmaninov chose the work for one of his recordings on piano roll for the American Piano Company, still available to listen to online.
Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, often referred to as the "Mount Everest" of piano concertos, is said to contain more notes than all of Mozart’s piano concertos taken together, and according to Rachmaninov himself, was written "for elephants". In 1910, the composer placed this new work on the programme of his first American tour, and played the virtuoso piano part himself.
It is an unusual and monumental work, not only because of its length or technical difficulty for the pianist. But the expressive melodies and subtle interplay between the piano and the orchestra make it a summit of Rachmaninov’s oeuvre. It wide renown among the general public would come only years later, thanks to the film “Shine” (1996) about the obsessive fascination of the pianist David Helfgott for the ‘Rach 3’. The world was able to rediscover one of Rachmaninov’s most mature and original works.
Ravel was a contemporary of Rachmaninov’s, but their styles could not have been farther from each other: Rachmaninov clung to sumptuous Romanticism, while Ravel was more interested in experimentation and innovation. Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé is as monumental as the Rach 3: grandiose, expressive and enchanting, a masterly highpoint in Ravel’s work.
“For him, I predict a great future!” Tchaikovsky apparently said of the then 16-year-old Rachmaninov – who is now regarded as one of the last great Romantic composers and the most important successor to Tchaikovsky himself. Rachmaninov was greatly influenced by Tchaikovsky in his early years: he admired his passion and melodic style, and felt the same strong affinity with the Russian musical tradition.
After the disastrous première of his First Symphony in 1897, Rachmaninov lost his confidence in his talent and fell into a depression. For three years, he did not put a single note on paper, until at last, thanks to treatment by the neurologist Nicolai Dahl, he re-emerged from the depths and wrote his Second Piano Concerto. “The only thing I’m trying to do when I write music is to express what is in my heart. Love, bitterness, sadness or religious sentiment, my music consists of all of this....” And you can feel that in this passionate concerto, which represented Rachmaninov’s great breakthrough as a composer.
The same profound emotion inspired Tchaikovsky when he was composing Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s play had made a deep impression on the tormented composer, and his version of this iconic love story is unquestionably one of the most moving.
THU 05.10.23 ABBAYE DE LA CAMBRE (BRUSSELS)
The Vlaams Radiokoor kicks off the Rachmaninov Festival with his iconic Vespers, performed in the unique setting of the Abbaye de la Cambre in the heart of Brussels.
Rachmaninov wrote his Vespers not as an ardent believer, but out of a fascination for the ancient melodies of the Orthodox liturgy. At the same time, Rachmaninov also creates a confrontation with the Vespers: between age-old melodies, styles and established harmonic values on the one hand, and his own interpretation and adaptation of that tradition on the other.