Boris Giltburg on Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 4

Pianist Boris Giltburg explores the Russian masterpiece in the second of a series of guest blogs for BBC Music Magazine

Boris Giltburg on Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 4

A slightly surreal feeling: going offstage having just played Rachmaninov’s 4th Piano Concerto, and 40 minutes later, while still trembling with the adrenaline which courses in your system, finding yourself on stage again, to play his Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini – the last work Rachmaninov wrote for piano and orchestra. I played both three times this week, and the experience was exhilarating, very fulfilling, and just on the edge of crazy.

A question I hoped to find an answer to was: why is Rachmaninov No. 4 vastly less popular than his No. 2, No. 3 or the Rhapsody – or even No. 1? Is there some objective fault or deficit in the music, or was it just due to circumstances – if, say, Horowitz had chosen to champion No. 4 instead of No. 3, would it have been No. 4 that the plot of the movie Shine were centered around?

I’d cautiously say ‘no’ to that, at least as far as Hollywood would be concerned — as the musical and emotional journey No. 4 takes you on is not nearly as titanic in scope as that of No. 3 — though I strongly feel that No. 4 deserves more recognition. It suffered from a poor critical reception at its premiere in 1927, with a critic calling it 'long-winded, tiresome, unimportant, in places tawdry', and apart from Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, no great pianist of the 20th century chose to champion it. Michelangeli’s rendition is utterly brilliant, though, with his hallmark combination of cold fire, impeccable taste and impeccable technique suiting the music perfectly.

From the very first notes of the orchestral introduction and the pianist’s heroic, defiant theme (I keep thinking of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog – you can feel the protagonist’s struggle against the forces of nature), you can perceive two of the piece’s main characteristics: it’s constantly off the beat, and it’s tremendously dense.

The lack of downbeats and the constant syncopations create one hell of a neurotic drive, and also keep everybody on their toes: the unstable nature of the music is unforgiving to the slightest hesitation. Together with the virtuoso writing for both piano and orchestra, it results in a concerto that is very, very difficult — which may further be exacerbated by the fact that orchestra, conductor and soloist would all likely have less experience with No. 4 than with either the Rhapsody or Nos 2 and 3.

The density, or lack of spaciousness, is just as striking. Thick orchestration and piano writing, coupled with rich, intricate polyphony – themes and motifs jump from piano to orchestra and back, sometimes with dizzying speed – lead to some kind of musical horror vacui: the soundstage seems to be bursting at the seams, whatever the register and the dynamic (listen, for example, to the treacly piano and brass chorale or the hectic activity of the finale’s development section).

The Rhapsody, in direct comparison, feels almost pointillistic. The soundstage is enormous and seems to be populated by judiciously (and very imaginatively) selected touches of orchestral colour – points, swathes or bursts, as each variation may require. This makes for a very transparent orchestration, not only in the sparse moments, but even in the big climaxes, apart, perhaps, from two short and very loud sections in which the piano doubles the orchestra (in variations 10 and 14), and which Rachmaninov’s footnote suggests may be omitted entirely by the pianist – blasphemy, I know! And even if not, what a shame to sit with your arms folded when you could be joining the mayhem and fun – even if your sound is fully incorporated into the orchestra.

The Rhapsody, written in 1934 – eight years after the original version of No. 4 – is an inspired, distilled masterpiece; to me it is also firmly a 20th-century work, no longer bound to the Romantic umbilical cord. The lean, muscular writing, often treating the piano as a percussive instrument; the sharp angry bite of many of the fast variations; the inventive, progressive-sounding harmonies; its orchestration (the use of percussion in particular): to me it all breathes modernity, and the warm dark colours which permeate many of the variations seems to stem from the same source as the darkness in Bulgakov’s or Kafka’s prose.

The 18th variation is, of course, the big exception; a most beautiful lyrical melody, ingeniously constructed by inverting Paganini’s theme upside down. It’s as grand Romantic a gesture as we could hope for, big-hearted and lush, and it’s decidedly a look back towards some purer, less jaded times – if anything, its sweet character may lead one into the temptation of self-indulgence (undesirable, I think!). And yet it seems to function in a completely organic way within the context of the Rhapsody, emerging from the heavy darkness of No. 17 with its chromatic crawling undulations in the piano and the hollow interjections by the woodwinds and brass. It’s then perceived as the last bastion of Romanticism before the coda, which resolutely switches back to modernism (waking from a dream?).

One advantage which the Rhapsody might have over No. 4 is a wonderful clarity of vision. The progression from variation to variation seems almost inevitable, and Rachmaninov very prudently supports the web of the 24 variations by superimposing a classical three-movement structure on it (the middle ‘movement’, which encompasses all the variations in a major key, begins with the dreamy variation 11 and ends with variation 18). No. 4 underwent two series of cuts and rewritings – Rachmaninov seems to have agreed personally with the critic’s assessment of the concerto as ‘long-winded’ – with the final, 1941 version, being 25% shorter in duration than the original. This final version is compact and quite taut, but the structure did suffer, especially in the last movement, which had its entire reprise amputated. The finale, as it stands, presents one interesting section after another, but lacks perhaps the more unified, driven narrative of the other Rachmaninov concertos.

And yet I’d like to finish with praise and full commitment to No. 4, as this week left me with a strong desire to play it again and more often. The musical impression which the concerto leaves is one of utter integrity; it’s full-blooded, engaging, and often very beautiful – and in addition, as it seems, very effective for the audience… And perhaps the fact that the great pianists of the 20th century left it mostly untouched is not a negative one, as it is now in our hands to bring this concerto to the popularity and acclamation I believe it deserves.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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