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!).