Rarely has the Russian soul been captured in music so impressively as in Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 – in its melancholy brooding, its singing and revolt. In this performance with Semyon Bychkov, pianist Kirill Gerstein debuts with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky fosters a completely different attitude in his Third Symphony, which is shaped by the festive cheer and dancing brilliance of his famous ballets.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor
Kirill Gerstein Piano
Symphony No. 3 in D major Polish
A recording of the concert is available online at our Digital Concert Hall.
The premiere in 1897 of Sergei Rachmaninov’s First Symphony ended in an unparalleled fiasco. Was it really because Alexander Glazunov, who had been charged with conducting it, drowned out his stage fright in vodka? Rachmaninov, then shortly before his 24th birthday, was not in the mood to assign blame: he took responsibility for the failure, withdrew the work – compared by one critic with the ten plagues of Egypt – and decided to renounce composing. The consequence was a deep depression for which Rachmaninov ultimately had to seek medical treatment to overcome. The Moscow neurologist Nikolai Dahl succeeded in revitalizing the composer’s courage to face life and creative power – including through hypnosis according to Rachmaninov. Healed of his self-doubts, Rachmaninov wrote the Second Piano Concerto, dedicating it to the doctor, and launched it as soloist conducted by Alexander Siloti in Moscow in 1901, landing a worldwide success.
In these three concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein will take on the work’s solo part, which poses exorbitant technical difficulties. The conductor will be Gerstein’s compatriot Semyon Bychkov, who is just as conversant with the sensual, truly mesmerizing power of Rachmaninov’s music as with the particular melancholy that characterizes Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s compositions. Like Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky did a lot of soul-searching about his abilities. For instance, the composer wrote in 1888: “I often have self-doubts and ask myself, hasn’t the time come to stop, have I overdone my power of invention?” The inner battles that Tchaikovsky had to struggle with when composing can also be heard in the music of his Third Symphony, called the Polish because of its last movement in the rhythm of a polonaise.
A Russian composes a Polish symphony: foolhardiness, madness or symphonic suicide? None of them. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky did not want to send a message of solidarity to oppressed Poland in 1875, where the last uprising had been brutally crushed by the Tsar’s army eleven years earlier. He simply used a polonaise in his Third Symphony in D major. The title “Polish Symphony” did not originate with him or the publisher but was already used in the 19th century for performances in western Europe. But does that mean nothing was hidden behind the name of the Third? After all, the subject was delicate enough. Ever since the Poles had taken Moscow in 1609 and occupied it for several years, they had not exactly been popular in Russia. The Russians long regarded the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as their greatest enemy, and the Tsars were only able to push it back gradually. In the mid-17th century Smolensk and Kiev became Russian again, and at the end of the 18th century Russia succeeded in erasing the Polish state from the map with the help of Prussia and Austria.
Tchaikovsky began work on the Third Symphony in 1875 at Usovo in the province of Tambov, on the estate of a long-time friend. He next went to the country estate of another friend in the village of Nizy, and finally stayed in Verbovka, where his sister’s family, the Davidovs, spent the summer. There he completed his new work. Nizy and Verbovka are in Ukraine, near Kiev, like Kamenka, the main residence of the Davidovs, where Tchaikovsky was a guest every year. Many Polish landowners still lived in these areas. A German author, Friedrich Meyer von Waldeck, described them as follows in 1884: “Their homes only differ from the houses of the farmers in that they have a few more rooms, larger windows, fruit gardens and separate threshing floors and barns. One often sees the daughters of these aristocratic Polish gentlemen in the peasant dress typical of the region, barefoot, working by the sweat of their brows in the fields and meadows” – and singing, it should be added.
The polonaise (Italian: polacca) not only accompanied the festivities of the nobility but was also a folk dance and popular with Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Weber and Schumann, and naturally even more popular with Chopin and Moniuszko. Despite the stylization of the polonaise as art music, it is possible that Tchaikovsky was inspired by a rural scene for the Finale of his Third Symphony. Poland itself meant nothing to him; it was merely a through station on his many journeys to the west, and he was indifferent to political struggles for freedom anyway. There are conspicuous traces of Polish culture in his works, however. Four of Tchaikovsky’s song cycles – ops. 27, 28, 47 and 54 – include settings of translated Polish poems, and the symphonic ballad Voyevoda is based on a poem by the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz, translated by Alexander Pushkin.
Tchaikovsky initially entitled the Finale of the Third Symphony “Allegro con tempo di polacca” then revised it to “Alla polacca”, thus making it clear that it was not only a performance indication. This change is omitted in the published editions of the score, however. The movement is quite unusual in other respects as well. It contains extensive fugal passages, as though the composer wanted to demonstrate his competence in the academic idiom, something that was often questioned in the case of Russian composers at that time.
Like other composer colleagues, Tchaikovsky acquired the reputation of a symphonist because of his stylistic expertise and outstanding contrapuntal work. The first movement offers sufficient evidence of this. The second movement “Alla tedesca” brings the usual easing of tension. The Allemande, or German Dance, was a whirling couple dance in triple metre popular since the 16th century, from which the waltz later developed. Perhaps Tchaikovsky wished to pay homage to his idol Schumann, whose “Rhenish” Symphony also has strong folk elements. Echoes of the solemn movement from Schumann’s “Rhenish” waft through the “Andante eligiaco”, combined with thoughts like those Beethoven indulged in during the “Scene by the Brook” in his “Pastoral” Symphony. The listener believes he can detect Glinka and Mendelssohn, on the other hand, in the extremely virtuosic and delicate Scherzo. These are only associations, however; Tchaikovsky already composed in his unmistakable idiom here, anticipating countless effects and tonal nuances which we know from his later symphonies. The Finale builds to its climax, a symbiosis of folk and academic styles that brings the extraordinary work to a thrilling and ingenious close.
The “Polish” Symphony is still waiting to become part of the standard repertoire and is only heard occasionally by a larger audience. But it also had its admirers: Igor Stravinsky, for example, who chose it as his favourite symphony – not surprising in light of the ballet-like scenes in the work. Stravinsky simply adored Tchaikovsky. As a ten-year-old, he had seen the “grey-haired man, broad-shouldered and thickset” in the foyer of the Mariinsky Theatre, and in 1893 he attended the St Petersburg premiere of the “Pathétique” Symphony, nine days before Tchaikovsky’s death.Sergei Rachmaninov was much closer to the icon of Russian music. Tchaikovsky gave him advice and supplied him with a publisher, who brought out the 18-year-old’s F sharp minor Piano Concerto as his op. 1. In 1893 Rachmaninov dedicated his Trio élégiaqueto his late mentor’s memory.
Like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov suffered from self-doubt; failures plunged him into existential crises and triggered lengthy creative blocks. The disastrous premiere of his First Symphony nearly ended his composing career. Whereas Tchaikovsky had always treated himself by composing, Rachmaninov had to seek medical assistance. The Moscow psychiatrist Nikolai Dahl cured him with hypnosis. Rachmaninov was able to compose again, and he consequently dedicated his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, op. 18, to Dr. Dahl in 1901. There is not as much Tchaikovsky in the work as in his op. 1 – but still enough.
Opponents of pleasantly melodious music have always maintained that Rachmaninov’s works are even more cloying, maudlin, pessimistic and ostentatious than Tchaikovsky’s. One insult leads to the other, and both miss the point – what did not apply to Tchaikovsky certainly does not apply to Rachmaninov. His own unsentimental recordings, particularly of the Second Piano Concerto, indicate how little Rachmaninov’s music actually corresponds to the clichés of “grandiose film music” (Stravinsky) or even “emotional manure” (Richard Strauss). Later pianists poured thick sauce over it; he himself played like he composed: with precisely calculated climaxes, a fantastic sense of contrasts and sensationally clear intonation. Rachmaninov may still have been deeply rooted in the 19th century and dutifully followed conventional forms, but he succeeded in composing indescribably evocative music. To open oneself to his unique style, to explore the heights of his inspiration – elegant and heartrending – and still keep a cool head: that is the task interpreters and listeners are confronted with during every Rachmaninov concert. What a wonderful challenge!
Semyon Bychkov, born in Leningrad in 1952, was a pupil of Ilya Musin at the Leningrad Conservatoire. In 1973, he won First Prize at the Rachmaninov Conducting Competition. Since leaving Russia in 1975 and moving to the USA, he has enjoyed a career taking him from New York’s Mannes College of Music to engagements for international opera productions (eg. in Milano, Paris, Vienna, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York, at the Salzburg Festival and Maggio Musicale in Florence), as well as concerts with some of the greatest orchestras in the world. Bychkov was appointed Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris (1989–98), Principal Guest Conductor of the St Petersburg Philharmonic (1990–94) and of Maggio Musicale in Florence (1992–98). From the season 1997/98 until 2010, he was Chief Conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchesters Köln, a position he also held at the Dresden Semperoper from 1999 to 2003. Semyon Bychkov currently holds the Klemperer Chair of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music, and the Günter Wand Conducting Chair with the BBC Symphony Orchestra with whom he appears annually at the BBC Proms. Since his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1985, stepping in for Riccardo Muti at short notice, Semyon Bychkov has returned several times for guest conducting engagements. His most recent visit was in June 2014, when he conducted Strauss’s Don Quixote and Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in C major.
Kirill Gerstein, born in 1979 in Voronezh (Russia), began training as a jazz pianist at Boston’s Berklee College of Music when he was 14 years old. He later turned increasingly to classical music and continued his studies in New York, Madrid and Budapest under Solomon Mikowsky, Dmitri Bashkirov and Ferenc Rados. Winner of the Arthur Rubinstein competition in Tel Aviv in 2001, he performs as a soloist with ensembles such as the Munich Philharmonic, the symphony orchestras of SWR, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In North America, he is a regular guest with, among others, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra. Kirill Gerstein has had a long artistic association with a number of conductors including Charles Dutoit and Semyon Bychkov. He is also an avid chamber musician, and in addition to performing in a trio with Kolja Blacher and Clemens Hagen, he also appears together with Tabea Zimmermann, Steven Isserlis and András Schiff. In 2010, he won the Gilmore Artist Award, and with the prize money he commissioned new works from composers such as Alexander Goehr, Oliver Knussen and Brad Mehldau. Together with his trio, the pianist made his first appearance as a guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation in 2013. In these concerts, he now makes his debut with the orchestra. Kirill Gerstein is a professor of piano at the State University of Music and Performing Arts Stuttgart and also teaches at the Boston Conservatory.