Wednesday 16 October 2019

Classical: Rachmaninov's romantic concerto that very nearly wasn't

Sergei Rachmaninov
Sergei Rachmaninov

George Hamilton

For an introduction to the wonderful world of classical music, I often recommend the sumptuously romantic second piano concerto of the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov.

He was a masterful pianist who had ambitions to be a composer, and when he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, he got himself a contract with a publishing house.

But the path to the second piano concerto was by no means smooth, and at one stage it looked as if Rachmaninov might turn into the composer who never was.

After a promising start, which included a first concerto, written at the age of 17, and a pair of symphonic poems, the logical move was to produce a symphony.

Pieces like his supremely popular Prelude in C-sharp minor marked him out as a musician of note, but if he wanted to be considered a serious composer, there would have to be a symphony.

So, taking his inspiration from Russian Orthodox church music, he set to work. It took him 10 months of 10-hour days, but by October 1895, at the age of just 22, he was ready to join the ranks of Tchaikovsky and Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler.

In March 1897, they were ready to go, and a date was fixed for St Petersburg. And that is when the whole story began to unravel.

For the conductor engaged to direct the first performance of the symphony - Alexander Glazunov, a composer admired by Rachmaninov, but also a man with a fondness for a tipple - turned out to have little regard for the music. Rehearsals were limited, Glazunov failed to engage with the orchestra, and the result was a mess.

Rachmaninov, who'd feared the worst, had left the hall and spent the performance hiding in a stairwell. When it ended, he fled the building to escape the audience.

The reviews were damning, and Rachmaninov took it personally. But his wife blamed it all on Glazunov. She said he'd been drunk.

The effects were devastating. Rachmaninov withdrew the score, and it was never performed again in his lifetime.

It was left behind when he departed Russia for the United States just after the Revolution and has never been found. Fragments that turned up in the library at the Leningrad Conservatory where he'd also studied formed the basis for the symphony's reconstruction, and it had its second outing in 1945, shortly after the composer's death in California.

The immediate consequence of the St Petersburg debacle was that Rachmaninov developed writer's block. He continued to perform as a concert pianist and took up conducting, but the memory of that disastrous evening still lingered, and composition was out of the question.

Worried about where this was leading, his family suggested he consult a Paris-based Russian psychologist, Nikolai Dahl, whose speciality was hypnotherapy.

Three months of intensive sessions followed, and the outcome was the second piano concerto.

This masterpiece of melody and emotion was dedicated by the composer to Dr Dahl, the man who'd helped him find his muse again.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ Lyric FM from 10.00am each Saturday.

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