Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 4 in G minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 40

SERGEI VASILIEVICH RACHMANINOFF

BORN: April 1, 1873. Semyonovo, district of Starorusky, Russia

DIED: March 28, 1943. Beverly Hills, CA

COMPOSED: January through October 1926, using some material going back to 1911. In the summer of 1941 he returned to the score, rewriting it thoroughly. It is the 1941 version that is played at these concerts

WORLD PREMIERE: March 18, 1927. Rachmaninoff was soloist with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1982. Jean-Phillipe Collard was soloist with John Nelson conducting. MOST RECENT—February 2012. Simon Trpčeski was soloist. Edo de Waart led

INSTRUMENTATION: Piano solo, 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, military drum, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, and strings

DURATION: About 25 mins

THE BACKSTORY All his life Rachmaninoff was subject to the glooms. Stravinsky called him “a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl.” The story of how he was rescued from severe depression and propelled into the composition of his Second Piano Concerto only by a course of psychiatric treatment with Dr. Nikolai Dahl has often been told. Certainly in 1942 he had much to scowl about. On the verge of his fiftieth season of concert-giving, he was tired, prematurely old, plagued by arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure, and tic douloureux, and intensely worried about his daughter Tatiana, who lived in France and with whom communication was impossible after the United States entered the war. He had always been uncomfortable balancing his three careers as composer, conductor, and pianist. In the 1920s and ‘30s he was chiefly a pianist, a very great one and immensely successful, though anything other than happy with his life in hotel rooms and Pullman cars. Now Rachmaninoff the composer appeared to be in trouble. The Fourth Piano Concerto, in its first round of performances, and the Variations on a Theme of Corelli, which Rachmaninoff introduced in Montreal in 1931, were failures with the public; the Third Symphony, first conducted by Leopold Stokowski in 1936, and the Symphonic Dances, brought out under Eugene Ormandy in January 1941, hardly fared better. Among all of Rachmaninoff’s later compositions, only the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which he first played with Stokowski in 1934, was received with delight. This was the context in which the Fourth Concerto assumed its final form and in which Rachmaninoff’s life drew to its close. The tour he had long before determined would be his last had to be cut off midway. On February 17, 1943, with melanoma spreading rapidly through his body, he gave his last recital, in Knoxville, TN, and died six weeks later in the house he had bought the year before.

The Fourth Piano Concerto spans more than half of that sober, densely filled life. Its first and second movements, the latter more significantly, use music originally written in August 1911 as one of the Études-Tableaux, Opus 33, but withdrawn from the set before publication. Rachmaninoff was then thirty-eight, and in every way a musician at the zenith of energy and success.

Now the chronology becomes obscure. In 1914, a Russian magazine announced that Rachmaninoff was at work on a new concerto. Around 1926, he referred to a plan to resume work on a large composition he had begun in Russia at the beginning of the war and which he had abandoned when political circumstances had made him lose his concentration. It is probable that part of what he turned to when he really came to write the concerto in 1926 was a group of sketches from 1914. It seems also that his interest in writing a new concerto was again stimulated when he undertook in 1917 thoroughly to revise his First Concerto, whose first movement only he had introduced as long ago as 1892. During these years he was living in Russia. His international touring was drastically curtailed by the war, but to his catalogue of compositions he had added The Bells—his own favorite among his pieces—and the Piano Sonata No. 2, the All-Night Vigil, a second set of Études-Tableaux, and some of his finest songs. In December 1917, a month after the establishment of the first Soviet government, Rachmaninoff left Russia with his family for good, living first in Copenhagen, but soon coming to the United States, making his way to California and to a rented house in Menlo Park.

Between March 1917, when he completed the Études-Tableaux, Opus 39, and January 1926, when he began the Fourth Concerto, Rachmaninoff, so fertile since his breakthrough with the Second Concerto in 1901, did not write a single major work. His sense of exile, which he felt keenly, must have had something to do with that, and his characteristically concentrated commitment to his breadwinning career as concert pianist even more. But beyond that, Rachmaninoff, now in his late forties, was changing as a composer. The well that had produced the expansive melodies of the Second Symphony, the first three concertos, and many of the solo piano pieces and songs seemed to have dried up. He needed now to make the most of his talent for economy, concentration, and precision. Rachmaninoff’s four “unpopular” late works—the Corelli Variations, the Third Symphony, the Symphonic Dances, and the Piano Concerto No. 4 (in the 1941 version)—all represent their composer at his most formidably intelligent and imaginative.

Of these works, the concerto is the most problematic. Rachmaninoff himself was worried about its length. He was horrified to find that the copied score came to 110 pages. It disturbed Rachmaninoff that the orchestra was “almost never silent, which I regard as a great sin. This means that it’s not a concerto for piano, but a concerto for piano and orchestra.” Clearly, he was torn between a desire to write music of a certain simplicity and the desire to do something more complex. The former desire comes out in his words, the latter in his score.

THE MUSIC The Fourth Concerto begins in a state of high excitement, in mid-sentence, with rapid, chattering triplets first preparing, then accompanying a grand melody for the piano (taken from the abandoned Étude-Tableau of 1911). What follows is lighter in texture, more capricious in mood. A detail worth pointing out is the beautiful scoring of the first melody when it reappears in the recapitulation, high in the first violins, with support from a few woodwinds and quick arpeggios in the piano but virtually no bass. It dissolves into a plaintive wail on the English horn, but neither the piano nor the rest of the orchestra are disposed for such matters, and in six quick measures they cut the music off. It is one of Rachmaninoff’s most daring and singular gestures.

Rachmaninoff believed the theme of the second movement was related to the theme of the first movement of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, though context, harmony, and sonority ensure that the effect is vastly different. In Rachmaninoff’s Largo, the simple primary theme is a brooding presence. We hear it over and over, in changing registers and colors, with an occasional variation of contour, in ever new and ever bolder harmonizations. It allows no other musical thought to exist. Even when the piano protests in furious fortissimo chords, the horns and the violas insist on this dour litany. The piano’s flight into lyric melody breaks the spell only for a moment. Then the violins and cellos sing a powerfully rising theme (also taken from the discarded Étude-Tableau), which leads us in a masterfully made transition into the finale. This music, haunting, asymmetrical, using so little material to imply so much, is one of the most powerful inventions of “the new Rachmaninoff.”

The finale maintains that level of fantasy, particularly in the piano writing itself, which is enormously more demanding than in the first two movements, and in the kaleidoscopic orchestration. This was the movement that Rachmaninoff recast and tightened most drastically, and the brief and startling invasion of it by the opening of the first movement is one of the most interesting of his second thoughts.—Michael Steinberg

LISTEN AGAIN: Daniil Trifonov with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin on Destination Rachmaninov: Departure  (Deutsche Grammophon)

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(September 2019)