Elephantine Concertos and Other Infestations
Rachmaninov, Kabalevsky and Walton: Always good for surprises
Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, op. 30
He was described as reserved and modest. His long-time friend Fyodor Chaliapin even suggested that he was embarrassed by fame. Not at all modest, on the other hand, were the grand houses he occupied in Russia, Switzerland and, finally, California. He was a cordial host and occasionally, so as not to attract attention, would take a sip from his glass of wine, something he didn’t especially care for. To his friends he was remarkably generous, and they expressed their gratitude in paeans to his character. Regrettably, this life style cost money, a great deal of money, and Rachmaninov gained a reputation early on of being extravagant and mainly interested in large fees.
The Third Piano Concerto, written in summer 1909 for a US tour, has never entirely escaped its reputation as more of a mercantile than an artistic masterwork. Rachmaninov himself called it a piece “for elephants”, by which he meant that mastering it demanded enormous physical exertion. A field day for detractors of its late-Romantic, decidedly anti-modern style, this 45-minute monster – which was much admired on the composer’s gigantic tour beginning in autumn 1909, bringing him comparably huge fees – could indeed be regarded as the product of a capitalist entrepreneur.
Ultimate virtuosity and an aura of arch-Romantic nostalgia – already in the 19th century that was not a contradiction. Rachmaninov pushes these two seemingly opposing tendencies to the extreme while ingeniously reconciling them. The main theme, entering in the third bar in parallel octaves, doesn’t begin to hint at the horrendous technical difficulties to follow, which prompted Rachmaninov to undertake various cuts and offer alternative cadenzas. That applies to the second movement as well, an elegiac, at times effusively impassioned intermezzo having the character of variations. A brief scherzo cadenza leads to an exceptionally bravura finale. Culminating in radiant D major, the work conceals the most sophisticated artistic devices beneath its elegant, always accessible façade.
Dmitri Kabalevsky:Overture to the opera Colas Breugnon
During World War I and the early phase of the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninov gave benefit concerts for wounded soldiers. Anxious about appearing a conspicuous bourgeois, he retreated with his family to their supposedly unscathed country estate, Ivanovka, but it was already being subjected to atrocities and vandalism. The musician’s house was not spared by the mob, who threw his piano down into the garden while peasants slaughtered his daughter’s favourite dog. The terrified Rachmaninovs fled to Moscow. Then a concert offer from Stockholm enabled them to escape the chaos.
Obviously, the number of artists who stayed because they couldn’t or wouldn’t leave was far greater. Hundreds of biographies describe desperate efforts to survive in the most depressing circumstances imaginable. Alongside the tragic figures there also existed a large group of successful composers who almost never came into conflict with the party, held academic positions and created work after work more or less free from worry. Nikolay Myaskovsky and Reinhold Glière were the two best-known representatives of this group. The third member was Dmitri Kabalevsky, born in St. Petersburg and educated in Moscow. The path of his long career was paved with awards, titles and other honours. Kabalevsky hewed closely to the doctrine of socialist realism, yet an immense talent saved his music from sterility if not always from lapsing into flashy Soviet kitsch.
Kabalevsky’s breakthrough came in 1938 with his opera Colas Breugnon; its overture is still his most frequently performed composition. A jaunty theme is tossed back and forth between the woodwind, strings and percussion. In the middle section, an initially lyrical idea is elevated to majestic heights. The opera is based on Romain Rolland’s novel of the same name; its hero is a wood-carver in 17th-century Burgundy. Striving for authenticity, Kabalevsky imitated French folk music of the period but, in the end, had to accept that his Breugnon was perceived as “the union of the artist and the people”.
William Walton: Façade
William Walton’s position in music history could be likened to that of a British Kabalevsky. If the two-years-younger Russian was never a viable rival to Shostakovich or Prokofiev, the Englishman always had Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten breathing down his neck. He also enjoyed an early breakthrough, but in his case, the huge success of Façade hindered more than it helped. It catapulted him into the first rank of British composers and became, though wholly atypical of his style, the yardstick by which everything else was measured. The son of a choirmaster in the industrial town of Oldham, near Manchester, Walton sang as a choirboy in his father’s church choir but did not seem to be inclined towards music. His lovely voice attracted attention, and aged ten he won a choral scholarship to Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where six years later he became one of the university’s youngest undergraduates. There he spent his time studying musical scores while neglecting the subjects required for graduation. Romantic and emotional, nearly always brought to tears by Puccini arias, Walton was also extremely shy, so that even his father’s career as a provincial musician wasn’t an obvious fit. Then in 1918, while at Oxford, he became friends and lived with Sacheverell, Osbert and Edith Sitwell, who were not shy at all.
The Sitwell siblings had high literary ambitions. For a while their circle was seen as a rival to the Bloomsbury Group, whose members included Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes, but many regarded them as spoiled upper-class attention-seekers. The two brothers in particular delighted in defying social conventions, while the more decorous Edith was conspicuous not only for her poems but also for her attire – brocade and velvet costumes and a gold turban.
Now the young Walton found himself in the middle of this illustrious circle, recognizable all his life from his choirboy haircut. Sacheverell declared him a genius after hearing a piano quartet by the 16-year-old composer, and Edith took him under her wing. An artistic collaboration soon followed. Walton set her cycle of poems Façade, which played with speech rhythms and onomatopoeic word creations, prompting some contemporaries to consider this experiment pure nonsense. The music seemed to correspond to that view: most of the pieces indulge in difficult arabesques, causing one instrumentalist to ask him following the first private performance in 1922: “Excuse me, Mr. Walton, has a clarinet player ever done you an injury?”
The first public performance in 1923 caused an uproar, though without the epoch-making consequences that Schoenberg or Stravinsky had triggered with similar premieres. But for the English, it was shocking enough. Walton, the shy choirboy with the Lancashire accent became an enfant terrible in London overnight. He could hardly grasp what happened. In order not to acquire the reputation of a Dadaist, he soon augmented this first version with some less jarring numbers. And he continued to tinker with his Façade, even after 1948 when he settled for the rest of life on Ischia. And so, although the six movements compiled for these concerts as a suite by Sir Simon Rattle still betray the raucous spirit of the Roaring Twenties, they are also well-mannered enough not to seem out of place in a New Year’s Eve concert alongside Slavonic Dances by Antonín Dvořák.