Tuesday 11 December 2018

Sergei Rachmaninov's tuneful triumph - a song without words

Writer's block: Rachmaninov dedicated his second piano concerto to his psychologist
Writer's block: Rachmaninov dedicated his second piano concerto to his psychologist

George Hamilton

Glentoran - the football club I supported in my youth back in Belfast - boasts, somewhat bizarrely, a motto in French - "Le Jeu Avant Tout" (the game comes first).

Tottenham Hotspur fans may well discern a link between this and their league and cup double-winning captain Danny Blanchflower, who began his career with the Glens.

Blanchflower famously declared that the game wasn't about winning, but about glory.

That motto came back to me as I listened to the music of Sergei Rachmaninov.

In his case, it's "la mélodie avant tout". The melody certainly came first for the composer.

Whichever piece of his you choose, you're sure to be beguiled by the beautiful combinations that meld into a bewitching emotional soundscape.

His 'Vocalise' - a song without words written in 1915 when he was in his early 40s - is a perfect place to start.

The last of a cycle of 14 Romances, it was composed for solo voice and orchestra.

The singer has no lyrics to learn, simply chooses a vowel, and sings it to the composer's melody. And what a moving piece it is.

For here is a song with a story, but the story is in the sound you hear and where it takes you. There are no lyrics to guide you, no words to explain. The message is in the melody.

Another tuneful triumph - in this case, on a much grander scale - is the second of his four piano concertos.

It didn't come easy. He'd written one as a teenager before trying the step up to a full-blown symphony.

This should have confirmed his status but was ruined by a botched première. Rachmaninov was left a wreck.

He needed hypnotherapy to help clear the mental block that developed. The Second Piano Concerto is dedicated it to his psychologist.

It's an absolute wonder of the form. A slow opening, as the pianist picks out eight chords, each one louder than the one before - it's like an Olympic diver climbing to the topmost board. Tension, drama - and then the release.

A cascade of melody is the only way to describe it. And Rachmaninov sustains it all the way through.

Even Rach 3, as his third concerto is known - a superhuman pianistic challenge designed to showcase the performer's talents - manages to make its technical point without sacrificing musical beauty.

It was first performed in New York by the composer himself. By this stage, Sergei Rachmaninov's career was well and truly back on track.

He was an international star, heading for the United States for the very first time.

Crossing the Atlantic by steamship, he fine-tuned his masterpiece in his cabin, on a silent keyboard.

Not disturbing his fellow passengers was the least of his worries. He didn't want a note of it to be heard before he took the stage in the New Theatre on Central Park West that Sunday afternoon in November 1909.

But the turbulence of the early decades of the 20th century would leave a scar.

Rachmaninov left Russia just after the Revolution in 1917, eventually settling in the United States. This dislocation troubled him deeply. He was frustrated in exile.

He returned to composition in time, but his output was meagre compared to what had gone before.

With a family to support, he had forged a career as a concert pianist, and that, in any case, left him little time to write.

He enjoyed considerable success as a performer, sufficient to earn him a home in a mansion in Beverly Hills.

But he never did get back to his beloved Russia. He died in California, four days before his 70th birthday, in 1943.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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