Saturday, February 22, 2014

Focus on Sergei Rachmainov, Part II: Piano Concerto No. 4 (1926, rev. 1928/41)

Piano Concerto No.4: For many concertgoers or classical music fans, Rachmaninov is a composer of two works: Piano Concerto Nos. 2 and 3.  The Second Piano concerto is quintiessential Rachmaninov, full of brooding, gushing themes, all of which are instantly memorable and have been quoted out of context for almost a hundred years.  Ironically, this work came at a crisis of faith for Rachmaninov, as his previous work, the First Symphony, had been a disastrous failure as conducted by Glazunov in St. Petersburg (apparently, Glazunov had been drinking and St. Petersburg critics were never too kind to Muscovites).  He needed over a year of silence and hypnotic therapy (!) before he wrote his first bona fide masterpiece, which even today draws large crowds and is one of the true ‘blockbusters’ of the concerto repertoire.  No.3 is an even more valedictory essay, as it’s twice as long, twice as opulent,  and just a touch more masterful than No.2.  Opening with an innocent, chant-like melody, the concerto explores every inch of what the piano +orchestra combination can do.  It truly is the epitome of the late Romantic concerto.  After this, you simply have to resign yourself to copying him or laying down your pen.  Which poses an interesting question: what could Rachmaninov write after Piano Concerto No.3 if he dared to write a fourth piano conerto? 

And he did write a Fourth concerto, the “ugly duckling” of Rachmaninov’s concertos, which in some ways is my favorite.  Not that it’s quite the equal of Nos. 2 and 3, since those are beyond peer; however, it shows Rachmaninov trying something new, and learning to adapt his expansive, melodic style into a more cryptic, pithy framework.  In some ways this concerto can be seen as a rough draft for the famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paginini (ostensibly Concerto No.5), which is about the same length and offers more wit, rhythmic play, and modernist zest than any of his previous works.  What makes that work successful is its sheer showmanship; it’s very much a work for the theatre, meant to dazzle and charm.  Piano Concerto No. 4 is more like one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” in that it doesn’t deliver what the audience expects, and leaves people scratching their heads, unsure where to place it generically.  Is it a romantic piano concerto writ small?  Is it an aborted modernist work by a composer who couldn’t quite shake off the ghost of Tchaikovsky?  Certainly the old Rachmaninov is everywhere present: gorgeous orchestration—again, with more than a hint of Broadway—rhapsodic keyboard runs, soaring, endless melodies…and yet, none of it ‘soars’ or dazzles the way it should (if we assume all concertos should be like Nos. 2 and 3).  Instead, Rachmaninov seems to tease us, opening with a grand, epic invocation from the orchestra which is immediately pushed aside by a piano that hammers out notes aggressively, as if to say “I’ll make you forget the Tchaikovsky No.1!”  But then…it settles down to a much quieter, more subtle argument that approaches chamber music.  Yet the music itself is divine: Rachmaninov conjures up sounds never before heard in his music; it is much more playful than ever before, with the piano resembling some of his less tuneful Etudes-Tableaux.  A gorgeous Rachmaninov tune enters around the 2 minute mark, seeming to detour into Piano Concerto No.2 territory (it could easily exist in that work), but like the Third Symphony, it quickly morphs into a scherzo.  The music then drives into a darker realm, creating an almost spooky atmosphere of great seriousness.  After a grand climax the piano climbs out of the depths with solemn chords, and before long, the scherzo reasserts itself, followed by the gorgeous theme, and then—an abrupt, “blink or you’ll miss it” ending.  Indeed, many critics have criticized this ending, but in reality, it was longer; Rachmaninov decided it needed pruning and left us with this.  There’s something quite cheeky about how he ends it, and in many ways, it reminds me of the end of The Rhapsody, which also ends quite deadpan.  I have to think this is his defensive response to critics who accused him of too much romantic bombast.  In any case, taken on its own terms it works and it’s an enormously successful, varied first movement. 

The slow moment is also unusual—a broad, serene theme that some have compared (unreasonably) to “Three Blind Mice.”  I think it’s typical Rachmaninov, just without the romance; can a theme be beautiful without conjuring up desperate lovers and Pre-Raphaelite portraits?  Naturally—Mozart did it, and this reminds me of a Mozart Romance from his piano concertos, perhaps Nos. 20, 22, or 27.  Indeed, there is much that is Mozartian here, and though Mozart is not a composer one readily associates with Rachmaninov, there is much affinity between the two in Rachmaninov’s late music.  The autumnal quality, certainly, but also his willingness to experiment and play with form—think of Mozart’s 27th concerto, which defies all the previous works in its lack of theatricality.  It simply exists as it is. 

The finale opens brashly—even cheekily in the orchestra, before the piano careens in, almost a tad drunkenly.  Everything here seems composed with a nod to Prokofiev by way of Broadway.  Indeed, there is a slight hint of Jazz beneath this music; let’s not forget that Rachmaninov was in the audience during the premier of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue!  This is one of Rachmainov’s first works written squarely in the 20th century, and one that, without radically altering his style, converts the often heavy, austere quality of the Second Symphony into athletic, ‘young’ sounding music.  Of course, there’s melody and beauty throughout, but the dominant mood is satiric high spirits.  Indeed, the finale sounds like a discarded movement from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, particularly Variations 19-21, which groove and shake like no other work in his opus (except this concerto).  So why is it so neglected?  Sure, it’s played now and then, and recorded when anyone does a complete set of his concerti, but as a stand-alone piece it delights—and is a nice reposte to those who exclaim Rachmaninov is old hat, washed up, hopelessly Romantic.  Amazingly, in his 60’s Rachmaninov was still reinventing himself and listening (and taking notes) on American music.  I often have to be in just the right mood to listen to Piano Concerto No.3, but No.4 always takes me by surprise and transports me to its unique soundscape.  For these reasons it makes an ideal introduction to Rachmaninov’s music, rather than a tolerated footnote to his compositional legacy. 

My favorite version is the classic recording from Ormandy and Entremont with the Philadelphia Symphony.  This was “Rachmaninov’s orchestra,” since he had a warm working relationship with them, and premiered several works with them, two of which he conceived with them in mind: Symphony No.3 and the Symphonic Dances.  Other great versions include the Ashkenazy/Haitnik version, as well as the much lauded version by Michelangeli, along with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (a novel, and very appropriate coupling!).  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Weight-Loss Approach to Reading

In some respects, we’re living in a renaissance of reading—a true rebirth of reading culture.  When I was in college, it seemed like few people read books outside of classes, and almost no one knew any of the big authors, outside of the ones whose books were instantly translated into films.  With the advent of Kindle and e-books, suddenly it’s become cool to read again, since reading looks more like television or staring at a computer; it’s not ‘boring’ and you can actually read much faster on a Kindle than you can a ‘real’ book.  Partially this comes down to the skimming factor, since I suspect many people read e-books the way they read Facebook/Twitter feeds.  Of course, we’ve become so reliant on technology that for many people, sitting down with an actual paper book seems hopelessly old-fashioned and the lure of the screen becomes impossible to ignore.  Some of my students complain that they simply can’t sit down with a paperback for more than a few minutes before their mind starts racing.  E-books, however, allay that mental fear of losing the screen and they feel more connected; suddenly, people are rediscovering the ability to read a short book in a one go, or at least having an hour or two of uninterrupted pleasure.  So that’s a good thing; people are reading again, and from a quick glance at sites like Goodreads or Booklikes, they’re reading tons of books as quickly as they can find them.  Again, this is good—read books, read many books, and lose yourself in other writers’ lives and minds. 

What does concern me is the distressing focus on quantity on all these sites.  Goodreads offers a 2014 Reading Challenge, where you’re supposed to set a reading goal—say, 50 books—that you hope to meet by the end of the year.  I’ve seen people boast about reading 200 books—some even more.  Many readers’ accounts have hundreds and hundreds of books on their ‘to read’ list, and they are all the time adding more, reading more, devouring more.  Also, these sites encourage you to update your progress: what page are you on, how close are you to finishing, how many books have you completed this month?  Even the Kindle reader has a little bar on the bottom telling you the percentage you have left of the book, as if we can all sigh with relief when it finally, mercifully, reaches 80%.  There are even sites that track how fast you read books and encourage you to increase your speed, buy products that can help you read words faster, etc.  Granted, few of these books are Joyce’s Ulysses or anything that requires deep concentration, but even so, should we encourage reading to the finish line?  Why are we trying to read so many books so quickly?  My own ‘to read’ pile is enormous, and always has been, but the last thing I want to do is set time limits on how quickly I plan to demolish it so I can start a new one.  What’s the rush? 

In Alan Jacob’s excellent little book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011), he addresses this very issue of reading fast and posting it for all the world to see:

I think this is a bad idea.  It’s what you’re reading that matters, and how you’re reading it, not the speed with which you’re getting through it.  Reading is supposed to be about the encounter with other minds, not an opportunity to return to the endlessly appealing subject of Me.  Americans have enough encouragements to narcissism; let’s try to do without this one (67). 

Though this passage—and I suppose my entire post here—sounds a bit hectoring, I think it makes a great point about why people have taken up reading with such aplomb.  It’s a kind of boasting, isn’t it?   Would people read so much if they had to do it in silence, in solitude?  Why do we need to constantly post what we’ve read, how much we’ve read, how much we want to read?  Is it really all about me?  And in our rush to beat last year’s record, or to show our followers how many eclectic books we can experience, are we actually doing anything resembling good old fashioned reading?  Don’t get me wrong—I commit all of the sins outlined above: I read books fairly quickly, post about them, write reviews of them, etc.  However, I don’t feel any urge to set limits and my training as an English scholar has taught me to read slowly, deeply, and for more than surface appreciation.  Does that make me better than anyone else?  Of course not…but I suspect I’m enjoying the books I read a bit more, since I’m not racing through them or glancing at the readout that tells me how much time left until I can get off the Stairmaster.

Shouldn’t reading be fun?  Something savored, the way you would take your time over a great meal, or perhaps more suitably, the way you spend time with someone you love?  Do you really want it to end so you can get on to your next meal—or your next love affair?  If so, what is the value of a good meal or a true relationship with another person?  Is it all just casual sex or fast food take out?  Okay, so who cares if people make out with their books and eat great quantities of high calorie romance novels (to stretch the metaphor to its breaking point)?  This leads to my second point: by focusing more on reading quickly, we might be reading with blinders.  Let’s face it, not every book is written the same; some books are all about plot, with little emphasis on style or character development.  Others are all about how the sentence is written, how the character looks at a certain building at a certain time of day.  For some books, description is the plot, is the character development (despite our modern maxims that description is lazy writing, is boring, is fluff).  

When we read fast, we read for two things: plot and genre.  You can’t read quickly without looking for (and relying on) the convenient sign posts of genre.  You see Character X which you recognize from a thousand books; you see Plot Y which you’ve read over and over again, but you expect a new, fresh twist on it right at the end.  A satisfying, five-star read is a book that gives you exactly what you expected, yet adds one tiny spice to make you, for a moment, think you’ve read a different book.  This is why after Harry Potter every publisher green-lighted stories about adolescent sorcerers; why after Twilight teenage vampires invaded every high school and small town across America; and after The Hunger Games dystopian worlds and gladiatorial games became the soup du jour.  So what happens to those writers, past and present, who don’t want to follow the pre-packaged mold?  A mold which, ironically, was not followed by J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, or Suzanne Collins.  Do we know how to read those books?  Can we appreciate them?  Or do we get irritated with them and even call them out for being ‘bad’ or ‘disappointing’?

To return once more to Alan Jacobs, he discusses how much pleasure he’s derived from reading the philosopher David Hume, who is by no stretch of the imagination a “page turner.”  As he explains,

For almost all of us, then, Hume’s writing will provide a kind of test—an opportunity to find out just how much patience we have, how much time we’re willing to take.  And to spare any suspense on this point, the results of that test will almost certainly be: not patient enough.  But this is no cause for discouragement.  A person who had been sedentary for a lifetime would not think that she could rise up from her sofa, head out the door, and run a breezy 10K.  Instead she would work up to it slowly, starting with a few strolls around the block perhaps, then longer walks, then a little jogging, and so on.  The same applies to the reading of texts written in an unfamiliar idiom or genre, or written in an age whose stylistic preferences differ from our own (49). 

As an English teacher and scholar of older literatures, I deeply identify with this statement.  I, too, started out sedentary then learned to crawl, then walk, then jog, then sprint—and even then, only for a short time before becoming winded.  However, I always knew that it was a race worth running.  Yet as reading becomes more and more about a different kind of race, are we able to take the time to adjust our reading preferences or grapple with a different period, culture, style, or author?  I ask this because I’ve seen so much ignorant nonsense on sites like Goodreads, Booklikes, and even Amazon, from readers who give classic books such as Pride and Prejudice and The Lord of the Rings negative reviews for being too long, too wordy, too descriptive, and ultimately, too boring.  One reviewer—who, conveniently enough, was also an author—claimed that Tolkein needed to learn how to edit, and that he could make the three novels into one really good one, if anyone cared to ask him.  I’ve heard similar comments about The Iliad and all of Shakespeare’s works: pointless, discursive, and in need of a good editor.  

The ignorance of these statements is shattering.   First of all, it assumes that we, in the 21st century, invented editing.  Don’t you think it was edited?  In fact, I would wager to believe that many works of the past were edited with more intelligence and rigor that anything we push through the presses today.  Take The Iliad, for example; this is a work from the oral tradition that was probably re-written, revised, and recast for hundreds of years before it assumed anything like its final form.  Jane Austen completely re-wrote the book Pride and Prejudice was based on (First Impressions), changing it from an epistolary novel to a more traditional one, and in the process making a work of the late Enlightenment into a fledgling Romantic novel.  Can you imagine the work (and critical fortitude) that must have went into this process?  Secondly, making a book from the past into a ‘bestseller’ would not notably improve it; indeed, it would destroy what makes it unique and able to transcend its moment in time.  By this logic, should we abolish different languages in favor of one we all agree on, that could speak to everyone equally, without taking into account the nuances of culture and poetry?  In short, reading takes time, and learning to read the works of the past, as well as works outside our own cultural and generic norms, takes patience (to quote Jacobs).  I don’t think the current reading environment encourages patience, and many young readers, raised on this approach, will quickly abandon works that don’t “speak to them,” assuming that it’s a flaw of the book/author.  As a reader, I usually assume the fault lies with me, and I need to recalibrate my expectations before I dismiss a book as 1 or 2 stars, or heap it on the “will never finish” pile. 

As an English teacher, more and more of my first-year students seem to read books, which is amazing—no question.  Yet these same students are more reluctant, it seems, to read books that demand more of them, that don’t fit into a genre they like or an author they’ve previously read.  I hear quite often, “I don’t like classics,” as if this is a genre or a style of writing.  My point, if I really have one, is that our reading seems more driven by advertising and marketing than a desire to read new books and meet new ideas.  All new technology destroys as it creates, and I fear our frantic embrace of e-books and the marketers that come with it, are making us count books as we count calories.  Are books good for you?  Of course they are; they enrich the mind, nourish the soul, and knock us out of our selfish bubble to see other worlds—worlds we may never visit in person (all the more so for worlds in the past).  Yet reading by itself isn’t necessarily good; I could read a thousand cereal boxes and not walk away enlightened.  Reading is an art, which is ultimately a tool, a means to transport us to another state of mind/being.  If we read blindly, we learn blindly, too.  Reading should never become like our 1,500 “friends” on Facebook.  Even if you read only one book this year, read it slowly, patiently, and let the experience transform you.  If you love books, of course you want to read as many as possible—I certainly do—but don’t let sheer numbers impress you.  Don’t count the books or take stock of the pages.  Just keep reading: different books and different authors, different styles and genres, and in different languages if possible…especially when no one’s looking.  

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Focus on Sergei Rachmaninov, Part I: Symphony No.3 (1936)

Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninov is something of a 20th century enigma: he doesn’t fit neatly into the parade of modernist composers who blossomed in Europe and Russia in the early years of the 20th century, and he stubbornly resisted the tide of serialism that conquered the composing world soon after WWI. However, it is incorrect to call him an anachronism, either, as his music could not have been written in the 19th century, and throughout his works are subtle hallmarks of a ‘modern’ ear, one that combined the true sensibility of Romanticism with a world-weary, and at times, despairing 20th century outlook. Even before his death, the critical music world dismissed him as a has-been (and to some, a never-was), though his works stubbornly refused to disappear from the repertory. Audiences clamored to hear his 2nd and 3rd piano concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, his 2nd symphony, and numerous piano works, including the haunting, often Chopinesque Preludes. It wasn’t until serialism had run its course (and even academics were admitting that audiences would never completely warm to its rigors) that conductors, musicians, and critics began the ‘thaw’ of Rachmaninov’s legacy. Sure, some of the works never entirely fell out of favor, but what of all the other works—the 2 other piano concertos, the 3 other symphonies, and a slew of piano works that few pianists dared to attempt (such as the First Piano Sonata, or the unrevised version of the Second). Today, Rachmaninov is one of the most-recorded composers in the catalogue, his reputation as a 20th century master firmly established, and a true link between the generation of Tchaikovsky and the neo-Romantics, including many modernist-Romantics such as Samuel Barber and Erich Korngold. 
This is the first post of many where I will examine some of his ‘forgotten’ works, which even today, are lesser-known (though often prolifically recorded), and belie his status as an “old fashioned” composer, or as Stravinsky once accused him, a painter who abandoned fresh watercolors for stale oils.  Hearing this works alongside his more famous music gives us a complex portrait of an artist who continued to grow and evolve, even though his unique musical thumbprint appeared at an early age.  Though he would never be as radical as Schoenberg, or as innovative as Bartok, he offered profound solutions to the question of musical meaning in a disillusioned age.  Rachmaninov’s piano sounds like no one else’s before or since, and his orchestra, though spiced with the aromas of Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss, finds its own solitary byways that few composers dared—or were able—to follow. 

Symphony No.3: This late, autumnal symphony was largely rejected by both the modernists and the traditionalists when it appeared in 1936.  Modernists, of course, found it another example of his mawkish melodrama, while friends more in sympathy with Rachmaninov, such as the composer-pianist Nikolai Medtner, exclaimed that he had jumped to the modernist’s camp!  The reasons for this confusing critical assessment are not hard to discern: the symphony marries Rachmaninov’s traditional melodies and flow with a growing appreciation for American music, as well as, perhaps, a deeper understanding of Stravinsky’s art.  His orchestration is leaner, more muscular, and yet more inventive than in previous works, such as the gargantuan, and sometimes densely scored Second Symphony.  Chief among his orchestral innovations is his focus on rhythmic elements, which to me suggests allusions to the American scene—jazz and Broadway above all.  The opening movement, however, is most memorable for its sense of overwhelming longing; it has been called his “Exile” symphony, for Rachmaninov had abandoned Russia after the Revolution and was never to return.  He spent his last decades in America, shored up in Southern California along other European ex-pats such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky.  For such a deeply Russian composer (at least in the sense that his music carries a significant national stamp), composing in America must have been a tricky proposition (all the more so in Beverly Hills!). Many attributed his long compositional silence to his exile, though it probably had more to do with an endless round of concert engagements to pay the bills. 

At any rate, the Third Symphony exhibits Rachmaninov at the height of his powers, and like the Second Symphony, it opens with a motto theme that provides material for the entire movement—a haunting tune for 2 clarinets, horn and muted cello, which then explodes into a rhythmic clatter.  This subsides into more typical Rachmaninov, a searching, wistful theme which seems to speak of exile and old Russia (it also slightly resembles a more agitated version of the slow movement of Piano Concerto No.4).  Rachmaninov develops this in many unusual ways, often more typical of his scherzo movements than a first movement.  His use of percussion and rhythmic effects nicely offset his familiar melodic strain, making the movement a refined, subtle, but always provocative masterpiece.  The slow movement is the most interesting movement, as it combines slow movement and scherzo, offering us one of his greatest romantic themes, but not letting it run the show as in the Second Symphony.  A jolly, sardonic march intrudes early on, dominating the movement until the gorgeous theme reasserts itself.  The finale that follows is cut from the same cloth as the opening movement, with boisterous, scherzo-like rhythm occasionally broken up by moments of painful nostalgia.  I honestly feel like this was Rachmaninov’s way of composing in an ‘American’ style without compromising his essential aesthetic.  It is more athletic and lean, yet everything sounds exactly like him.  I truly admire his ability, quite late in life, to unleash a side of him left dormant (to some degree) since his First Symphony, where melody was firmly held in check for symphonic development.  While I wouldn’t say this is necessary better than his more famous Second Symphony, it is surely its equal—and superior for its ability to conform to new styles and be influenced by his adopted homeland. 
I have never heard a bad recorded version of this symphony, though I would recommend the following versions highly: Dutoit with the Philadelphia Symphony, Jansons with the St. Peterburgh Philharmonic, Ashkenazy with the London Symphony, and Ormandy with the Philadelphia (the pioneer recording).