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Program Notes - Rach Two

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Sergei Rachmaninoff
b. Oneg, Russia / March 20, 1873
d. Beverly Hills, California, USA / March 28, 1943


In 1897, the disastrous premiere of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony threw his promising career as a composer into disarray. For three agonizing years, he found himself unable to write another note of music. His family persuaded him to seek the help of Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a psychoanalyst.

As the composer recalled, “My relations had told Dr. Dahl that he must at all costs cure me of my apathetic condition and achieve such results that I would again begin to compose. Dahl asked what manner of composition they desired and had received the answer, ‘a concerto for pianoforte,’ for this I had promised to the people in London and had given it up in despair. Consequently I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day while I lay half asleep in my armchair in Dr. Dahl’s study, ‘You will begin to write your concerto....You will work with great facility....The concerto will be of excellent quality....’ It was always the same, without interruption.

“Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me. Already at the start of the summer, I was composing once more. The material accumulated, and new musical ideas began to stir within me – many more than I needed for my concerto. By autumn I had completed two movements (the Andante and the Finale)....These I played that same season at a charity concert conducted by Sikti....with gratifying success....By the spring I had finished the first movement (Moderato)...and felt that Dr. Dahl’s treatment had strengthened my nervous system to a miraculous degree. Out of gratitude I dedicated my Second Concerto to him.”

Rachmaninoff performed it many times, and recorded it twice. The reasons for its ongoing popularity are clear. It displays its emotions directly, particularly warmth and melancholy. The themes are attractive and memorable; Rachmaninoff clothed them in lush orchestral colors; and the solo part is brilliant, mirroring the power and expressiveness of the composer’s own performing skills.

Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93
Dmitri Shostakovich
b. St. Petersburg, Russia / September 25, 1906
d. Moscow, Russia / August 9, 1975

As time passes, it becomes ever more clear that Shostakovich was one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers. The best of his monumental symphonies and intense string quartets are powerful human documents that are likely to stand the test of time. There has been much debate about how the events surrounding their creation influenced them, and the nature of their “true” meaning. When all is said and done, his compositions stand or fall purely on their musical and emotional values – and these are considerable. The RPO salutes him on the centenary of his birth through these performances of one of the most powerful and most emotionally wide-ranging of his 15 symphonies.

He spent many of his most productive years under the oppressive regime of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The brutality of the time naturally left its mark upon as sensitive a creative artist as he. The full weight of official disapproval descended upon him twice. In 1936, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda condemned his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as pornography, leading to a ban on his music and the threat of personal extermination. The successful debut of his Fifth Symphony the following year returned him to the good graces of officialdom.

History repeated itself in 1948, when he and other prominent Soviet composers were called on the carpet for filling their music with “formalistic distortions and anti democratic tendencies alien to the Soviet people” – in other words, for writing personalized, pessimistic music, rather than the simply uplifting variety that cultural officials wished for. Shostakovich turned to composing music that would keep him out of further trouble, such as innocuous film scores and choral works. In private, he continued to create such progressive pieces as Violin Concerto No. 1 and the Fourth and Fifth String Quartets, hoping that one day it would be safe to bring them out.

Following Stalin’s death in March 1953, he quickly set to work on a new symphony, his first in eight years. He completed Symphony No. 10 on October 25. Yevgeny Mravinsky conducted the premiere in Leningrad on December 17. It drew a mixed reception. Some hard-liners felt that he had failed to address the issue of providing Soviet audiences with a positive artistic experience. Others, such as fellow composer Aram Khachaturian, praised it as “an optimistic tragedy, infused with a firm belief in the victory of bright, life-affirming forces.” The debate over its merits, which was eventually resolved in his favor, played a role in the reinstatement of increased artistic expression in the USSR.

When he was asked if the new symphony had a program, Shostakovich replied, “No, let them listen and guess for themselves,” adding that he wanted simply “to portray human emotions and passions.” Testimony, the controversial book of memoirs published in 1979, gives quite a different account, stating “It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of him, roughly speaking. Of course, there are other things in it, but that’s the basis.” Whatever its inspirations, this dramatic and forceful work, sparked by slashes of dark wit, is one of his finest achievements.

The first movement is the longest of the four. Opening with sober, desolate ruminations, it rises to a prolonged climax of searing intensity. The music winds down slowly, to end as bleakly as it began. In the final pages, two piccolos warble forlornly as dusk falls over a battle-scarred landscape.

Harshly scored and driven by relentless, maniacal energy, the brief second movement delivers one of the most concentrated outbursts of fury in all music.

Enigmatic and unsettling, the third movement refuses to offer consolation for what has preceded it. It features a series of expressive solos for wind instruments and a bitter, ironic climax that borders on hysteria. Shostakovich makes prominent use of a four note motive based on a musical transcription of his name: DSCH (in German notation, D, E-flat, C, B). He introduced this emblem into many further compositions. Another ingredient is a motto played 12 times by one or more horns. This is another translation of a name. Elmira Nazirova was a young pianist with whom he undertook an intense, muse-like correspondence while composing the symphony. He told her that, apparently by coincidence, her “signature” is identical to a theme from one of his favorite works, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).

Continuing the symphony’s disconsolate mood, the finale opens with a mournful introduction in slow tempo, once again featuring wind solos. But then clarinet and strings announce a merry dance tune, at last allowing a ray of sunlight to brighten the scene. There can be no possibility of unclouded optimism; shadowed moments crop up, and at times the rejoicing takes on an almost frenzied edge. The DSCH motto rings out forcefully in the brass towards the conclusion, setting the seal on a work which does not so much celebrate the present as it expresses a wish for freer, less troubled days ahead.

© 2006 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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