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Monday, Nov. 10, 2008

Romanticism’s Long Shadow

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Classical music is replete with stories of composers who gave us many great works for which posterity is most grateful, but for whom we are left to wonder what might have been had they lived longer. One such story is that of Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940). Born in Durango, Mexico, Revueltas studied in Mexico City, Austin, Texas, and Chicago, spending much of the 1920s in the United States. He spent the '30s in his native Mexico (apart from a tour of Spain in 1937), and was assistant conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica de México from 1929-35.

Like many 20th-century composers, he ended up composing film scores, doing so for a half-dozen Mexican films. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performs his suite from a score for the 1935 social protest movie Redes ("Nets"). Scored for a rather small ensemble, Redes is one of his most "serious" pieces of music, given the largely grim subject matter of the film.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) lived some 29 years longer than Revueltas and produced many more works, having begun to move toward modernism late in life. Yet it was during this time that he composed what became one of his most beloved and romantic works: the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in A Minor, Op. 43, for piano and orchestra (1934).

The last of Niccolò Paganini's 24 Caprices for Violin has been the subject of variations by Brahms, Lutoslawski, Blacher, Paganini himself and even Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the best-known variations remain those of Rachmaninoff. His Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini has little in common with contemporaneous works that showed a decidedly colder, more modernistic touch than to be found heretofore in Rachmaninoff. The 24 variations form something of a piano concerto, with three discernable sections reflecting the traditional fast-slow-fast concerto structure. The 18th variation has long been excerpted for separate performance and recording. By far the most famous, Rachmaninoff once chided that the 18th variation was "one for my agent."

Robert Schumann (1810-56) had another tragically short life; as prolific and talented as he was, we must wonder what he would have produced in old age. Along with Mendelssohn and Schubert he was one of the founding fathers of the Romanticism that Rachmaninoff brought to a close. Indeed, like his successor, Schumann was one of the masters of the piano of his time. Uncomfortable all his life with larger forms such as symphonies or concertos, his works in these genres nonetheless contain moments of great beauty, showing Schumann to be quite the quintessential Romantic.

His Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120, though last in number, is not his final symphonic effort, having originated immediately after he composed his first symphony in 1841. But it remained unpublished for another 12 years, owing to Schumann's tinkering and revisions. In its final version, the D Minor Symphony is far and away the most formally innovative of the four. Indeed, Schumann once considered calling it a "Symphonic Fantasia," as all four movements are played without a break.

These works will be performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Carlos Miguel Prieto, joined by pianist Horacio Gutiérrez for Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody.

At Uihlein Hall on Nov. 14 and 15.