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Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008

Rachmaninoff’s Romantic Vision

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He was one of the greatest pianists of all time and the last truly great composer in the Russian Romantic tradition-this at a time when Romanticism had long since begun to lose its grip upon Europe's artistic scene. While his contemporaries charted new courses in music (Debussy with Impressionism; Stravinsky with Modernism), he stuck to the traditions of tonality, melody and form. He even earned the scorn of some fellow composers (Stravinsky called him a "6-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl").

I speak of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873- 1943), who remains popular to this day, the old biases long ago consigned to the dustbin of history. He is the reason for the Waukesha Symphony Orchestra's "Russian Gems" season that, as Music Director Alexander Platt states, "focuses on the unforgettable music of Rachmaninoff and his world."

The opening concert of the WSO season presents audiences with one of Rachmaninoff's largest works-the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30, which premiered in New York in 1909. For many years thereafter it was neglected by pianists and public alike, many of whom remained so enamored of his supremely melodic C Minor Concerto of 1901. The D Minor Concerto is a deeper work than its predecessor, a pianistic tour de force, full of virtuosic challenges in each movement. The Allegro non tanto first movement is generally subdued and reflective; the Adagio ranges from melancholy to exuberance; but the Alla breve finale is the work's great glory. Rhythmically buoyant and possessive of a lovely and catchy central theme, it boldly advances to a highly dramatic, triumphant coda. The young and talented pianist Andrew Armstrong is the soloist for this performance.

German-Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-86) was, like Rachmaninoff, one of the world's great piano virtuosos, and one of the pioneers of the late Romantic style that Rachmaninoff would inherit and bring to its zenith. Liszt was supremely influential not only in piano music but also through his use of the orchestra in sonic storytelling. To this end he turned the "Symphonic Poem" into a viable musical genre. One such work is Hamlet (1858), which is derived from the Shakespearean tragedy of the same name. Hamlet is a largely brooding but compelling effort, and certainly one of Liszt's finest examples of the symphonic poem form. Similarly, composers such as Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904) brought the "Concert Overture" into the standard repertoire with such works as his Carnival Overture, Op. 92 (1891). An operatic spirit infuses this piece, as does Czechoslovakian folk music and a festive atmosphere that reflects its title.

Rachmaninoff's near contemporary, Richard Strauss (1864- 1949), at least early in his career, took the late German-Romantic tradition to its pinnacle through his many orchestral "Tone Poems," including one of the most popular of these, Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche, Op. 28 (1895). It contains some of Strauss' most original and brilliant orchestration, as it creates an aural picture of a legendary character whose constant pranks eventually lead to his demise.

Maestro Platt leads the WSO in all of these works in a concert at the Shattuck Music Center on the Carroll University campus on Oct. 14.

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