Living abroad, Sergei Rachmaninoff only rarely returned to working as a composer, fundamentally appearing as a concert pianist. Four years after completing his Third Symphony he began work on his last creation – Symphonic Dances. Initially Rachmaninoff proposed naming the movements of the work Day, Dusk and Midnight but subsequently abandoned the idea.
In Symphonic Dances there is no strict obeisance to any particular genre-dance models – it is only in the second movement that there are features of a waltz.
The introduction of the first movement contains two contrasting elements – a short three-chord motif of the woodwinds and the strident accords of the tutti. The main section of the first movement is constructed around the first theme – a grotesque march. The lyrical middle passage, in terms of character close to the brightest pages of Rachmaninoff’s scores, grows from a Russian-natured theme, taken up by the first appearance of the saxophone (the only time Rachmaninoff made use of the instrument). The reprise – a return of the march – cedes to a tranquil coda in which Rachmaninoff quotes one of the motifs from his own First Symphony.
The second movement — a waltz – is imbued with nostalgic moods. The incredibly menacing fanfare signals of the trumpets and trombones with mutes form the boundaries between the movements; the rhythm of the waltz gradually becomes distorted and almost disappears by the end. In the finale of the cycle the plot of a dance of death, common in European culture, is transformed. In terms of its rhythm this movement is somewhat reminiscent of a gigue. The motif of the mediaeval sequence Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) here meets the rhythmically distorted theme of Rachmaninoff’s own All Night Vigil (1915). The tension, ending in a frenzied infernal dance, finds no resolution – the music stops suddenly in the culmination.
© Mariinsky Theatre, 2015/Vladimir Khavrov
Sergei Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto was written at a time when his talent had finally been freed of doubts, self-restrictions and external obstacles, had fully matured and strengthened. Starting with the 2nd Piano Concerto in 1901, brilliant new compositions, frequently more than one, appeared every year. This phenomenal burst of creativity was not impeded even by Rakhmaninov's intensive performing and conducting commitments. The 3rd Piano Concerto was written in the summer of 1909, when the composer was 36 years old. In the music of Concerto one can distinctly hear not only the maturity of a Master, but also a new scope, breadth, freedom...
The concerto was first performed in New York on 28 and 30 November 1909 during Rachmaninoff 's American tour. The Russian premiere, performed by the composer, took place in Moscow on 4 April 1910. The concerto is dedicated to the outstanding Polish pianist Jozef Hofmann, whom Rachmaninoff met during a tour of Russia (their acquaintance subsequently continued in the USA). Hofmann expressed his feelings for the composer most vividly in this heartfelt epitaph:
Rachmaninoff was made of steel and gold:
Steel in his hands, gold in his heart.
I cannot think about him without tears.
I not only admired him as a great artist,
But loved him as a man.
The 3rd Piano Concerto is one of the composer's most "Russian" works. It is often called a "concerto-song" or a "poem about the Motherland". The musical narrative - dramatic, with tragic episodes — is always lyrically painted, and can be likened to a "struggle between light and shade". The "conquest of the world" in the Finale is a genuine hymn of joy that found a particular resonance in the atmosphere of Russia at the end of the first decade of the 20th century. The middle movement, the Intermezzo, is an enigma and, to a large extent, a portent of the future (not only the "denouement" of the Concerto, but also the composer's later works) – a very personal expression, music which is, in a fantastic way, an interweaving of the present and memories of the past.