Can a Piano Capture the Grandeur of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Music?


Sergei Rachmaninoff composed two versions of “Symphonic Dances,” his last major work. One was the grand, orchestral score most often performed today; the other, a piano duet.

But could it also work on one piano?

Solo transcriptions have popped up in the decades since the 1941 premiere of “Symphonic Dances” — a colorful, harmonically adventurous journey through nostalgic melodies and grotesque waltzes, culminating in a cosmic showdown between life and death. And there exists a poor but precious recording of Rachmaninoff playing through the piece at the piano, vocalizing with his music as he ran through it for the conductor Eugene Ormandy in 1940.

Now, the pianist Inon Barnatan has made a fresh case for the score’s viability as a solo transcription, through a new version of his own that he recorded for the Pentatone label — and that he will perform at the 92nd Street Y, New York on Friday.

Barnatan, who has long loved the “Symphonic Dances,” has played the four-hands version in concert. But after hearing the Rachmaninoff recording, he wanted to try something similar, and the early, homebound days of the pandemic presented an opportunity.

“I thought, this is my chance to see if this thing can work,” Barnatan, 44, said over coffee in his SoHo apartment. He gestured nearby and added: “I basically sat at that window with it from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. I didn’t look up, I was so engrossed.”

In the interview, Barnatan explained why the piece lends itself to piano, and how it has changed his relationship with Rachmaninoff and his own playing. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What made you believe that this could work as a solo?

Something that occurred to me when I played the two-piano version is that it’s not written in the way that a lot of Rachmaninoff’s two-piano music is written. The whole piece is conceived on a single piano, and you realize that when you hear him play it on his own. Also, I always felt that this piece has a freedom, and an elasticity, that is really hard to get at when you’re playing with two pianos. It relies on this sense of timing and rubato that’s pretty hard to get even with an entire orchestra.

There’s so much color in this score. How can a piano contain that?

A piano that sounds like a piano is a poor thing. A Beethoven piano sonata is a string quartet as much as it’s a symphony. Even composers that we associate with the piano — Rachmaninoff, Chopin — always had another sound in their ears. I love being able to find those sounds in the piano. Most of the difficulties were in trying to preserve the essential sounds, but how do you play four different instruments with one hand? This piece presents the perfect opportunity to explore that.

The great thing about Rachmaninoff is that he is a colorist in the way he writes for the piano. People think of it as virtuosic because it’s so hard to play, but I think he primarily uses notes as colors, the way a painter can use thousands of different colors to convey one color. The virtuosity is never the goal. It’s almost a byproduct of the music. The feats of virtuosity that are required to make this work are completely incidental to the effect of trying to sound like an orchestra and not like a piano.

Let’s go through the piece movement by movement. In the first we start with a march, followed by one of those big, Romantic Rachmaninoff melodies.

A twinkle from the violins introduces the driving element of the piece, this almost relentless rhythmic propulsion that uses a motif that Rachmaninoff plays around with in an almost non-Rachmaninoff way. You think of him as being a tunesmith, but he basically takes a variations approach, developing a gesture in this march atmosphere. Then at some point, the winds sneak in with a beguiling line that eventually becomes the accompaniment for one of the most beautiful themes he ever wrote. The march sneaks back in, but one of the most interesting aspects of this movement comes at the very end. The march melts away, and we get this shining texture.

Underneath that, we hear this lush, consoling melody. That was the main theme from his First Symphony, which was a huge failure. It threw him into a depression. He withdrew it, and yet he takes the theme, which is dark and foreboding, and reworks it in this last piece as a private moment of catharsis. It’s his way of taking something that was painful and turning it into this beautiful act of forgiveness and self-love.

You mentioned the rubato that a solo piano can more easily articulate than two players or a full orchestra. That’s probably truest of the second movement, which has this “Rosenkavalier”-like, ironized waltz.

It’s right there above Bar One of the movement: He writes “rubato.” And it works beautifully on piano. What makes it dangerous in an orchestra is what makes it personal. The slight variations of tempo and pacing, the way it suggests this wonderful ghost waltz is probably the most fun to do in this piece as a single piano. And that’s probably the one bit that changes the most from performance to performance.

Then we get to the third movement, which puts the Dies Irae melody against a nod to the Resurrection in Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil.”

Originally, he conceived this piece as a ballet, which never materialized. And we never knew what it was going to be. But it’s interesting that he references a lot of music that he had written, especially the Dies Irae and a theme from the “All-Night Vigil.” With the biggest orchestral forces he uses, you have this main bit — this celebration, with bright, brilliant writing — and the weight that comes with the “All-Night Vigil” theme. And you just have to play it all, with all the colors. And in some ways that makes this movement the most challenging, technically.

Do you see Rachmaninoff differently after this project?

I’m not a composer, but having the experience of inputting every single note — thinking about every single dot and line — you really confront the meaning behind those things. You think about Rachmaninoff as a traditionalist, but there’s so much interesting harmonic language in that third movement. It just doesn’t declare itself as being revolutionary. Working on it, searching for the color in his music, made me look much more closely at his other solo piano music. I realized how rich some of those pieces are, and made me think of him more as a colorist.

What about how you see the piano?

I grew up having a distaste for showmanship, but nothing teaches you how to succeed in showmanship without even trying like Rachmaninoff. It teaches you how to be virtuosic and symphonic and epic without sacrificing sincerity. And Friday’s recital is a product of that, of grappling with how to be an orchestra at the same time as a piano. Not to imitate an orchestra, but to embody it.



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