Anatoly Konstantinovich Lyadov called his The Enchanted Lake “a fairytale scene,” thus sharply defining the border between this work and the romantic symphony poem. Having already completed the score, Lyadov expounded in the most animated manner how he saw this northern woodland lake: “It is so picturesque and pure, with stars, and so mysterious in its depths. Most importantly there is no-one there, no requests and no complaints – just dead nature, cold, evil, but as fantastical as in a fairytale.” Generally there are never any people in Lyadov’s music and The Enchanted Lake is no exception. When writing the “fairytale scene” the composer used sketches for the mermaid scenes from his aborted opera Zoryushka (Dawn) after the play Night at the Crossroads by Dal in which he brings to life an entire world of Russian folk mythology. The makeup of the orchestra is surprisingly modest and there is not one single superfluous detail. The quivering strings bring to mind the woodland pages of Kitezh. Just a few notes of the celesta depict the stars which become illuminated with the advance of night. The flickering dual notes of the flutes evoke their reflections on the surface of the water. The French horn issues mermaid-like calls... The Enchanted Lake is dedicated to Tcherepnin, under whose baton it was first performed early in 1909.
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) was and remains to this day Norway’s greatest composer, and the piano concerto he composed at the age of twenty-five is one of the most frequently performed works in the international repertoire. The concerto received the blessing of Franz Liszt, who (as he loved to do) played a work completely and utterly unknown to him directly from the score, approved the music and gave his support to the young composer. Himself a recital pianist (his recordings remain, made in the very first years of the 20th century), Grieg was subsequently to perform the concerto several times. Unfortunately, this work remained the only experiment of its kind: the Second Piano Concerto, commissioned by Peters publishing, was never completed by the composer.
In common with the Romantics, the concerto begins with the soloist – a lyrical hero. Grieg, who had just turned to national romanticism, imbued this first solo with a vivid national flavour, writing it in the harmony widespread exclusively in early 17th century Scandinavian folklore (in minor key, omitting the fifth degree). In turn, the main theme of the finale is halling
Norwegian dance. In the combination of lyricism and northern colour, we have the secret of the concerto’s unfading allure. And also in the abundance of musical themes, in as much as the young composer did not consider the use of “wise economy”.
Living abroad, Sergei Rachmaninoff composed little, appearing primarily as a concert pianist. In his works from that period he often turned to the European legacy – thus he composed the piano variations on a theme of Corelli and transcription of works by Bach, Schubert and Mendelssohn. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was Rachmaninoff’s last work for piano. It was written at the Villa Senar in Switzerland in a short period, just one and a half months. The rhapsody comprises twenty-four variations on a theme from the famous Violin Capriccio No 24 by Niccolò Paganini. The variations are combined in three groups, as a result of which we can see a form reminiscent of a piano concerto – the presto first movement, the lento second and the virtuoso finale. In the seventh variation there is the theme of the mediaeval sequence Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) – one of the themes that flows through all of Rachmaninoff’s music. The lyrical core of the lento movement and, indeed, the entire cycle, is Variation No 18, in style very remote from the theme but retaining an intonational link with it. In the culmination of the coda we once again hear the Dies irae theme, though the work concludes with peaceful and enigmatic music.
For Robert Schumann, years of 1840–1841 were unusually fruitful: his happy union with Clara Wieck inspired a plethora of compositions. At this time he wrote many songs, two symphonies and a Fantasia for piano and orchestra. Two years later Schumann added two more movements to the Fantasia turning it into a full scale concerto. The composition of the concerto is based on the transformation of the opening theme, which is first heard in the orchestra after the pianist’s introductory phrase. The first movement is melancholic in the introduction, calm and lyrical in the exposition, gaining the features of a nocturne in the development, and becomes a march in the coda. The second movement is a little intermezzo, running without a break into the bravura finale where the main theme once again receives a dance-like treatment.
Schumann’s concerto requires from the soloist a high level of technical mastery, yet virtuosity is not the most important element. Even the solo cadenza in the first movement is devoid of excessive showiness. The symphonic development and focused, personal means of expression affords Schumann’s concerto a special place amongst other romantic works of the genre.
Piano Concerto No 1 was composed by Tchaikovsky over the last two months of 1874 (until February 1875 he was engaged in the work’s instrumentation). It would appear that when working on the concerto the composer showed it to his favourite pupil Sergei Taneyev. This was the response of the young (eighteen-year-old!) student who told his acquaintances: “I congratulate you all on the appearance of the first Russian piano concerto it was written by Pyotr Ilyich.” It is known that Tchaikovsky initially dedicated the concerto to Taneyev, though he subsequently rededicated it to someone else Hans von Bülow who first performed the concerto on 25 October 1875 in Boston. The premiere proved a riotous success. Tchaikovsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov: “Imagine what an appetite the Americans have: at each performance of my concerto von Bülow had to repeat the finale.” Soon after (1 November 1875) came the St Petersburg premiere which initially drew contradictory responses. Nikolai Rubinstein, who initially had many grievances and had demands for rewrites (which Tchaikovsky categorically rejected), came to be one of the finest performers of the concerto. Tchaikovsky had an extremely high opinion of Sergei Taneyev’s performance: “I often see Taneyev,” he wrote to his brother Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky, “If only you knew how brilliantly he performs my concerto!”
One and a half centuries later Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto has become the same kind of “synonym” as the Fifth or Ninth Symphonies for Beethoven. Its strong heroic tone and dramatic pathos are blended with a virtuoso decorative style and, at the same time, with extremely delicate lyricism. The recitative-like style of the melody as in Tchaikovsky’s operas lightly and naturally flows into the rounded “arioso” forms that absorbed Russian and Ukrainian songfulness. The First Concerto is one of those pearls that has become a symbol of world musical classics. Who today would not respond to its “call” the broad introduction of the French horns, the majestic colonnade of the piano chords and the powerful and dazzling main theme of the strings supported by the brass!