AN 2 9296 Rachmaninov, Haydn, Ravel

Rachmaninov, Haydn, Ravel

Release date October 30, 2015
Album code AN 2 9296
Periods Various
Genres Piano

They spoke about it

Album information

Piano Sonata no. 2 in B-flat minor, op. 36 (Horowitz version) by Sergei Rachmaninoff

Though popular with the general public, Sergei Rachmaninoff has always been disdained by a certain grey-haired intelligentsia. Even the great pianist Claudio Arrau once told a Montréal friend that Rachmaninoff was “nightclub music”. After the musical tabula rasa that occurred after Hiroshima, Rachmaninoff was ostracized by defenders of modernity and accused of limiting himself to sentimental, populist Post-romanticism, thus symbolizing the old-world decadence that had led civilization to the brink of destruction.

But with avant-garde integrism now behind us, we can look back upon the works of the 20th century with equanimity; Rachmaninoff represents the last link – anachronistic perhaps but no less magnificent – in a grand tradition.

Long before the film Shine (1996) turned Rach 3 into the world’s most famous concerto, Frank Sinatra used Rach 2 in 1945, even before it was used to seduce Elisabeth Taylor in Rhapsody (1954) and Marilyn Monroe in Seven Year Itch (1955). Not to mention the countless gymnasts and figure skaters who have won thousands of medals performing to his music, and in doing so, making him the ancestor of musak.

Rachmaninoff wrote the Sonata in B-flat minor, op. 36 in 1913, at the age of 40. Robert Schumann, speaking of Chopin’s op. 35 Funeral March sonata, said that he “simply bound together four of his most unruly children” and called it a sonata. In much the same vein, Rachmaninoff’s sonata is a sort of hurricane in three movements, held together by two very similar transitions that display all the hallmarks of rhapsodic improvisation. It opens with a spectacular avalanche that spills down the keyboard like a flash of lightning, drawing the listener into a maelstrom where even the lyrical second theme cannot prevent a fall into the abyss, leaving in its wake a devastation that sets the stage for the second movement.

From the disenchantment underlying this false respite, which only seems serene on the surface, arises an unbearable nostalgia that, by itself, should be enough to elect Rachmaninoff to the pantheon of tormented souls.

The unbridled energy of the first movement returns in the third, with Rachmaninoff renewing the combat where he left off. After a yet another wave of savage clashes in which violence and tenderness alternate, the coda, in a first for Rachmaninoff, does not lead toward the light, and the sonata ends in a draw. Simultaneously one of the composer’s darkest and most exciting works, the sonata is both exhausting and exhilarating.

Sonata in F major, no. 38, Hob. XVI: 23 by Joseph Haydn

The French saying “les gens heureux n’ont pas d’histoire” (happy people don’t have stories) could easily apply to Joseph Haydn, so clear and rooted in the Classical tradition is his music that it could almost define the period, so wholesome that two centuries after his death, we still return to it again and again. Haydn’s form is so logical, rational, and perfect that at first glance it might seem boring. But Haydn’s incredible genius for invention and renewal infuses each formula with meaning, thereby creating a musical rhetoric that somehow expresses every nuance of emotional and spiritual language.

The Sonata in F major is no exception. A man engages you in conversation, and everything he says interests, intrigues, and moves you. Time disappears. An instinctive sense of trust elicits your questions and draws out your secrets, and such is his intelligence, curiosity, goodness, and discrete tenderness, veiled with humour, that it confirms (or perhaps renews) your faith in Humanity. This is the delightful gift that Haydn gives us.

La Valse by Maurice Ravel

Even today, the waltz remains a symbol of joie de vivre. Whether it be at weddings and proms, on the radio, at the movies (Stanley Kubrick’s use of “The Blue Danube” in 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example), or in Vienna, which kicks off each new year with a worldwide celebration of this triple-metre dance, the waltz rhythm is as familiar as a heartbeat. The Viennese court of Empress Elisabeth of Austria will forever remain an idealized image of a golden age, despite the tribulations of her life.

Ravel’s intentions with this piece in the fall of 1919 are clear, since its working title was Wien, or Vienna. Nor is it a coincidence that Ravel used the waltz rhythm for this “choreographic poem” only a year after the Armistice of World War I on November 11, 1918. La Valse is an allegory and a synopsis of this slaughter that took more lives than any other war before it.

The work opens with an uneven pulsation, the dull hammering of factory turbines–a frog that stealthily transforms into Prince Charming. But this surface glitter is also disturbing; scraps of melody arise from the magma below, meeting and combining into pairs that swirl around, split apart, and reform again only to show their true nature: agents of a death machine, of which they are both the victims and the instruments.

Ravel had already broached World War I in Le tombeau de Couperin, with each of its six movements dedicated to a friend who had fallen during the war and each magnified by the emotion conveyed by an ancient and elegant form. La Valse, on the other hand, employs a language of extremes that were unimaginable before the brutal carnage that accompanied the demise of Europe’s centuries-old code of honour and values. Against a backdrop of the fall of Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ravel reconstructs– with the same meticulous detail as the harsh and vengeful articles of the Treaty of Versailles–the mechanisms that ultimately triggered the disintegration of the civilized world. In about 13 minutes, this out-of-control carrousel offers a glimpse of Europe both before and after the “Great War” and encapsulates over a half-century of history.

© Georges Nicholson
Translation: Peter Christensen

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Alain Lefèvre
AN 2 9296 Rachmaninov, Haydn, Ravel
AN 2 9296 Rachmaninov, Haydn, Ravel

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