Scene: a railway waiting room somewhere in SE England in the 1930s. A man and a woman are sitting at a table over a cup of tea.
Celia: I say Trevor, must we, really?
Trevor: I’m afraid so, old thing, no other choice.
Celia: oh very well then, but why SW should think we know anything about Rachmaninoff is simply beyond me.
Trevor: But of course we do, don’t you remember? I had to get a nasty piece of grit out of your eye. Anyway, let’s see what we can do.
And that “brief encounter” between the two of them did indeed produce a splendid list of suggestions from which I have chosen four. Struggling to find the right words to express the intensity and immediacy of Rachmaninoff’s compositional style, I find that Geoffrey Norris has done it for me far more eloquently than anything I might muster.
“Rachmaninoff broke loose from the influences of Tchaikovsky and of his teachers Arensky and Taneyev, and established his own highly individual style, based on distinctively broad, soaring melody, a harmonic succulence and, in the orchestral works, a richness tempered with the utmost discrimination in the choice and blending of instruments.”
Those ‘broad, soaring melodies’ and ‘harmonic succulence’ [what a gorgeous phrase] are especially evident in his slow movements, perhaps the most famous of which is the 18th variation, in D flat major, from his Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 for piano and orchestra in which the original theme is slowed down and inverted. The work was composed in the summer of 1934 and given its first performance by Rachmaninoff (of course) in Baltimore with Stokowski on the podium. I succumb every time I hear this piece and it needs no further introduction from me, so here is Daniil Trifanov.
Where next? Well, how about the Adagio from his third Piano Concerto? Rachmaninoff was no mean pianist but it seems even he found his third Piano Concerto a challenge, joking that it was composed for elephants (!). My own recording is of the wonderful Jorge Bolet with the equally superb LSO. The sleeve note includes this delightful quote from Bolet: “I heard Rachmaninoff play his Third Concerto at least a dozen times and can never forget his grandeur, drama and lyrical intensity. I first learnt the Third Concerto when I was 14 [!!] but I let the music mature for another eight years before my first public performance…” Rachmaninoff gave the first performance in New York in November 1909 for which he found himself practicing on a silent keyboard as he travelled from Russia to the States. This is Simon Trpčeski:
Let’s leave the full-blooded orchestral world now and delve into the more intensely personal world of chamber music. First up is the Prelude Op. 23 no. 4 in D major for piano. Oh if only my hands were big enough to manage more than “just” the first page which sets out its lovely main theme over a widely spaced arpeggio-in-triplets accompaniment. This involves not only playing all the right notes (in the right order, naturally…) but choreographing the hands as they mingle with each other. Basically, the work consists of several repeats of the theme but in various guises ending with the most delightful cadence which would, “normally” be a second inversion tonic leading to dominant seventh resolving onto tonic. Instead we get what I can only describe as a glorious scrunch which always catches my breath (I think it’s a submediant chord with an added sixth – but those of you who have done H&C more recently than me may know better…) instead of the tonic second inversion, before leading to its peaceful expected conclusion. Here is Vladimir Ashkenazy (and you even get the music to follow…).
No post on Rachmaninoff slow moments could possibly be complete without reference to the Cello sonata’s glorious Andante. The work was composed in 1901 following his recovery from a nervous breakdown brought about by the disastrous first performance of his First Symphony. Rachmaninoff described its impact thus: “There are serious illnesses and deadly blows from fate which entirely change a man’s character. This was the effect of my own symphony upon myself. When the indescribable torture of the performance had at last come to an end, I was a different man.” It took the great success of his Second Piano Concerto to restore his confidence in himself. The Cello sonata, op. 19 was his very next work, composed in 1901 and dedicated to Anatoly Brandukov, the cellist who premiered the piece, with Rachmaninoff at the keyboard, on 2 December that same year. The Andante is characterised by Geoffrey Norris’s ‘soaring intensity’ and cello and piano are together lost in a rapturous meditation which I defy any listener not to be moved by. Utterly beguiling. And, goodness, do Rostropovich and Horowitz give their all here celebrating the 85th anniversary of Carnegie Hall in May 1976:
…and back in the station café:
Trevor: “There, Celia, I told you it would be alright – we’d better run, the train’s just coming”
They finish their tea hastily and dash across to the platform just as the train comes in. Celia clutches her eye “Oh botheration Trevor, I think I have another bit of grit in my eye….could you be a dear?”
We leave them as the strains of the Second Piano Concerto drift out over the station tannoy…
Editor’s note: Aficionados of British film will realise that although the cut glass accents of the cast suggest that Brief Encounter was set in the heart of the Home Counties, the platform and waiting room, used for those famous scenes, were actually in Carnforth, Lancashire, at the other end of the country. In non-Covid times you can still visit the station’s heritage refreshment room, and have your very own Celia and Trevor moment.