Brussels Philharmonic | Rachmaninov Festival: programme notes

Rachmaninov Festival: programme notes

For most of his life, Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) combined a career as a composer with that of a pianist, continuing the tradition of the composer-virtuoso. In Russia, he commuted regularly between the cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg and his country estate, Ivanovka, where he wrote the bulk of his oeuvre in peace and quiet. However, the 1917 October Revolution forced him to leave his homeland for a new home in Finland and later in the United States. Composing would never feel the same again for Rachmaninov.

Many people consider Rachmaninov one of the last great Romantic composers and the most important successor of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Rachmaninov’s work best known to general audiences is his Second Piano Concerto, partly thanks to films such as Brief Encounter and Shine. Although the public was won over by his expressive melodies and rich sound colours, critics have not received his music with equal enthusiasm, and labelled his music old-fashioned. In the concert hall, Rachmaninov often had to compete with the innovative musical language of emerging modernists. A tonal language that he would never really make his own.

During this Rachmaninov festival, the Brussels Philharmonic and pianist Boris Giltburg illustrate Rachmaninov’s career from the perspective of his four piano concertos. From his youthful First Piano Concerto, through the successes of his Second and Third Piano Concertos, to the sometimes jazzy Fourth Piano Concerto. In each case flanked by a work by a composer from whom he drew inspiration (or vice versa) or with whom he had a special bond.

In my own compositions, no conscious effort has been made to be original, or Romantic, or Nationalistic, or anything else. I write down on paper the music I hear within me, as naturally as possible. I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook. My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music [....] I have been strongly influenced by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov; but I have never, to the best of my knowledge, imitated anyone. What I try to do when writing down my music, is to make it say simply and directly that which is in my heart when I am composing. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious.

Sergei Rachmaninov