The problem is that I just don't think I can do a Music Salon post on a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Usually I am on the other side of the ideological divide between the Serialists and the Traditionalists. Usually I think that the Serialists and their fellow travelers were simply dogmatic in their insistence that the traditional forms were tired, exhausted clichés. But when I listen to Rachmaninoff I think, well, perhaps in this case they were right. Rachmaninoff's piano concertos are all that piano concertos should be: noble, virtuosic, then tender and lyrical. They are a bit like what Chopin might have written if he had written a mature concerto. So what's the problem?
As I see it, a composer can write a concerto that we hear as being noble, adventurous or tender and lyrical and it can be a great success. But if the composer's goal is to show us how noble and virtuoso or tender and lyrical he can be, in other words if that is his actual goal instead of making a piece of music, then the result will be, sorry to say, kitsch. Kitsch as in a painting by Thomas Kinkaid:
Or a movie by Steven Spielberg that does nothing but push our emotional buttons from beginning to end.
See, that's everything that we like, right there. A pretty little country church, just like the one we wished we had attended when we were young; tall trees, mountains in the distance, a babbling brook and over all the delicate hues of sentiment. With Rachmaninoff we have an extension of the romanticism of Tchaikovsky, but, to me at least, it is genuine passion turned to mere sentiment, a haunting melody become a nice pretty tune. It is very well done, the technique, both pianistic and compositional, but you can certainly see why composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky would think that this is exactly what had to be killed in order for music, their music that is, to move forward.
So that's why I can't do a Concerto Guide on Rachmaninoff. (For an interesting discussion of the ideological differences and compositional practices of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, see this paper by Richard Taruskin: Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff: A Comparative Study of Their Musical Ideologies.)
But you really have to hear this for yourself, so here is Yuja Wang with Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Verbier Festival Orchestra in the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Sergei Rachmaninoff:
That was composed around 1900 so it brings this phase of the Concerto Guide to an end. Next up is the 20th century and a surprising revival of the energy and adventure of the solo concerto with remarkable works by Schoenberg, Bartók, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Berg, Glass, Salonen and just about everyone else.
See you next week.