Hailed as a “hero” (Los Angeles Times), a “smashing” performer (Washington Post), “a pianist who breaks the mold” (International Piano) and “who stands out from the typical trends and artifices offered [...]
Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 40 (Original 1926 version); Scriabin, Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, Op. 60
They spoke about it
Piano and Orchestra: Inseparable Partners
In Moscow, in the years before World War I and the Russian revolution, there were two opposing, and apparently irreconcilable, musical factions. Rachmaninov was given the title of pianist of the bourgeoisie, while leftist students and theosophical movements championed Scriabin. The former was considered the successor to Tchaïkovsky, the latter, too avant-gardist. Fortunately, these squabbles in no way affected the friendship between the two composers. After Scriabin’s death in 1915, Rachmaninov played his works during a tour of major provincial towns as a way of financially assisting his widow, who was threatened with expulsion. Each in his own way, these two artists rejected the dictums of romanticism and embraced modernity, and this recording serves as a sort of bridge between them. Its two colossal works place orchestra, conductor and soloist on equal footings; and both require a meticulous reading of the score, a thorough understanding of its architecture, and flawless rhythmic precision: the original version of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire.
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 4
The Piano Concerto No. 4 has a special place among Rachmaninov’s oeuvre. He wrote the initial sketches just prior to 1917 but only returned to it in 1926 when, despite his triumphant tours, the face of the Russia he had left behind continued to haunt him. A thoroughly Russian work composed in his adopted land, it was Rachmaninov’s modest way of rekindling and conveying a painful memory. Is this the Rachmaninov of 1917 or of 1926; the one who mourns his motherland or the one who has embraced the effervescence of American musical life? The concerto reveals itself gradually, as if at the confluence of two streams: two torrents initially oppose each other before finally merging into one large and not particularly placid river.
In 1926, Rachmaninov had not composed a thing for eight years: “When I left Russia, I left behind me the desire to compose,” he explained in an interview. “Losing my country, I lost myself also. To the exile whose musical roots, traditions and background have been annihilated, there remains no desire for self-expression.” The creative process was also difficult, and he made revisions even before its publication. He told the work’s dedicatee, his friend and fellow composer Nikolai Medtner, that he was dismayed by the score’s length: “it will have to be performed like The Ring: on several evenings in succession.” Medtner was not long in replying: “I cannot agree with you, either in the particular fear that your new concerto is too long, or in general on your attitude to length. Actually, your concerto amazed me by the fewness of its pages, considering its importance.”
The concerto was premiered on March 18, 1927 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, with Rachmaninov himself performing the formidable solo part. The reviews were sarcastic and brief; however, his friend Josef Hofmann, another virtuoso of the time, wrote after the premiere: “I like your new concerto extremely well. Although it seemed to me that it would be rather difficult to play with an orchestra; particularly because of its frequent metric changes.” After fewer than 10 performances (in Philadelphia, New York, Washington and Baltimore), Rachmaninov resigned himself to abandon the form. He made two series of revisions to the concerto, one published in Paris in 1928 with his own publishing house TAIR (run by his two daughters, Tatiana and Irina), the other much more “Hollywood” in style and rather distorted from his original intentions, stripped of six pages in the first movement (hindering a long, cathartic ascent), two pages in the second movement, and no fewer than 20 pages in the final movement. This recording by Alain Lefèvre is the first complete recording of the original 1926 version, reconstituted from the manuscript version. (Bossey & Hawkes will publish the first edition of the version in the coming year.)
Scriabin: Prometheus: The Poem of Fire
As early as 1907, Scriabin had told Rachmaninov about his project to write a work that would marry several different artistic disciplines, lighting effects, and perfumes. (Incidentally, Cuir Beluga, a Nordic-style scent designed by the perfume house Guerlain, was dispersed as the choirs entered during the work’s performance on May 8, 2011 with Alain Lefèvre and the OSM.) The next year, he dove into the world of theosophy, taking a special interest in the symbolism of colours and their relationship with sounds. In his book Prometheische Phantasien, Scriabin explains, “since all is vibration, things as well as men, colours and sounds are vibrations also, obeying similar laws. […] Things can be distinguished from each other by the number of vibrations in a given unit of time.”
Fascinated by a painting of the myth of Prometheus by his friend Jean Delville, he realized that he had finally found the subject of his new symphony, and he worked on it continuously throughout the summer and fall of 1909, hardly stopping to eat or sleep. In November, he integrated into the score a line labelled “clavier à lumière” (keyboard of light), which was to be synchronized with transpositions of a synthetic chord of six stacked fourths (the “mystic chord) that formed the harmonic structure of the work, colours being for Scriabin extensions of the psychic world.
Although several programs have been suggested over the years, all of them somewhat theosophical, the only clues as to how to interpret the work are the cover of the orchestral score, drawn by Delville based on Scriabin’s recommendations, and mood-related performance cues (misty, with mystery, contemplative, joyful, sparkling, voluptuous, etc.). Perhaps, with the help of the “mystic chord,” we will hear Prometheus emerge from the shadows, or from a universal consciousness, before losing our bearings completely in this static, dreamlike, almost incantatory world, the piano constantly renewing the thematic material and using its resonance to extract virtuosic flourishes or a series of sparkling trills from the mass of sound.
© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen