Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Concerto Guide:

I know I didn't put up a Concerto Guide post last week. Every time I sat down to start one that old New Yorker cartoon kept popping into my head and I lost the will to write. You know the one: there is this little kid standing on stage next to a piano. He is dressed in evening garb and addressing the audience saying: "and now, God help us all, Rach three."  I just couldn't get that out of my head, especially as it looked like the next concerto I was going to do was either Rachmaninoff Two or Three.

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.


David said...

Bryan, I can't believe this post didn't generate a rush of comments from the "Rach Reactionary Army of Sentiment". Is it possible that your RRAS readers joined the Brucknerites for Better Symphonic Bridges and retreated after your "Malicious Review" posting?

My comment is prompted by my feeling that you go too far in comparing Rachmaninoff's Op. 18 to the Kitsch of Kinkaid. Is the indisputable "warhorse" status of the piano concerto in question evidence of its highly sentimental nature?

I recognize the whole battle here takes place in the minefield of aesthetics. Add to this the aspect that one performer may "lard on" the sentiment more than another. To my ear, Ms. Wang succeeds at doing just that. If you can stand it, try Richter's interpretation with the Warsaw Philharmonic under Wislocki (1959). You might agree with me that they present the music in a closer facsimile to the composer's conception.

Of course some truths remain immutable: de gusitbus non est disputandum.


ps: You didn't mention the icing on the Kinkaid Kake of Kitsch: the soaring eagles.


Bryan Townsend said...

Perhaps the ones who might have written were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder over the Bruckner comments!

Welcome to the Music Salon, David and congratulations for getting into the Spirit of Things here. Funnily enough, even though the Tchaikovsky piano and violin concertos are indisputably warhorses as well, in the sense that they are perennial audience favorites, I don't get the same sense from them of kitsch. This is a delicate judgment, of course, but once you start hearing a piece of music as contrived cliché, it is hard to go back. I will, of course, give Mr. Richter a listen on your recommendation.

How could I have missed those soaring eagles!

Rickard Dahl said...

Well, I'm not sure that I agree with everything you said here. I've listened to all of Rachmaninoff's concertos a few months ago. I didn't find any of them particularly noteworthy in the sense that they didn't stand out, at least to me. It might be compared to Handel's concertos, there are many of them but they don't stand out usually. Instead of typical baroque cliches you get typical romantic cliches in the case of Rachmaninoff. Sure, this specific concerto has some good moments such as the melody at around 7:15, the general feel of the 2nd movement when it's not put into an overcrowded (full of notes) context or the introduction in the 3rd movement. However I think it drowns in a lack of melodic/thematic material, filler stuff including massive arpeggios and overly virtuosic (but substance lacking) passages & romantic sentiments/cliches. It simply lacks clarity. Say what you want about Bruckner but his music has a sort of great clarity even in the context of massive thick textures. Bruckner's 9th Symphony is one of my favorite pieces of music.

One thing I've noted is that certain amateur composers I've come across like to delve into the romantic type of music but usually they end up with something that sounds pretty generic. Instead of bringing out a good melody, interesting harmonies etc. they end up with simply put romantic sentiment.

Bryan Townsend said...

This post, relating why I didn't want to do Rachmaninoff, I expected would get a LOT of complaining comments. But it didn't. Both you and David seem to almost agree with me.