26 January 2016 at 3.00pm | 9 Comments
When music magazines compile lists of the Greatest Pianists of All Time (or similar impossibilities), Sergei Rachmaninoff is often named as number one. As both composer and performer, he was unrivalled, matching inspiration with craftsmanship, brilliant technique with rigorous personal standards.
His contemporaries, on hearing him play, often remarked on the beauty of his tone quality, its singing nature and its variety of colour. ‘That is the most important thing for me in my interpretations, colour’, he once explained. ‘So you make music live. Without colour, it is dead.’
The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the work to which Frederick Ashton’s ballet Rhapsody is set, exemplifies the joint marvel of Rachmaninoff’s crafts as composer and pianist. The piano writing – terrifically difficult – requires grace, flexibility, precision, tenderness and, of course, colour, within a casing of dazzling virtuosity. Ashton matches it throughout the ballet with the extravagant demands he places upon his dancers.
Rachmaninoff’s mastery, though, had a psychological dark side. Born in 1873, he came from a less than happy family – his father was a compulsive gambler – and early studies did not serve him well. He finally began to find his feet at the Moscow Conservatory, and an early friendship with the celebrated Tchaikovsky, who championed his works, was a valuable boost. But in 1897 the disastrous premiere of his first symphony plunged him into despair and resulted in a serious creative block.
‘My dreams of a brilliant career lay shattered’, he wrote. ‘My hopes and confidence were destroyed.’ The issue was only solved by a course of ‘autosuggestion’, a form of hypnotherapy, with Dr Nikolai Dahl; this enabled the suffering composer to write his now immortal Second Piano Concerto. It is dedicated to Dr Dahl.
By the time Rachmaninoff came to write the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, though, his life – and his world – had changed beyond recognition. Before the Russian Revolution of 1917 he saw himself as a composer first and foremost; performing took second place. But when the revolution broke out, he and his family were forced to flee first to Sweden and subsequently to New York. During the 1930s they lived in Switzerland until the approach of World War II sent them heading once more for the USA.
Rachmaninoff never saw his beloved homeland again. Exile was a painful state for him, for his inspiration was deeply rooted in Russia and its music. Besides, he needed to make a living – and found himself in unprecedented demand as a concert pianist. His busy international career soon left him little time or peace for composing. The rate at which he composed dropped dramatically.
Nevertheless, the works he did produce during his association with the Philadelphia Orchestra during the 1930s are among his finest – among them the Symphonic Dances, the Third Symphony and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, for which Rachmaninoff was the soloist at the 1934 premiere. He himself envisaged it as a Paganini-related ballet and wrote to the choreographer Mikhail Fokine outlining ideas for it.
It was not necessarily the pain of exile, though, or the pressures of his performing career, that dragged the composer to occasional depths. According to the American music critic Harold C. Schonberg, Rachmaninoff once told the pianist Vladimir Horowitz that all his life he had ‘tried to succeed in three things – composition, piano playing and conducting – and had succeeded in none’.
Most audiences would beg to disagree, quite vehemently. But Rachmaninoff was his own harshest critic. ‘I am constantly troubled by the misgiving that, in venturing into too many fields, I may have failed to make the best of my life’, he once said. ‘In the old Russian phrase, I have “hunted three hares”. Can I be sure that I have killed one of them?’
Rachmaninoff’s perfectionism, interestingly enough, was echoed by Ashton – who apparently arrived for the premiere of Rhapsody in 1980 ‘absolutely pea-green’ with anxiety. He, too, was probably his own harshest critic. Can great artistry exist without that agony of perfectionism? The audience benefits; the artist is bound to suffer…
Rhapsody was performed as part of a mixed programme with The Two Pigeons until 30 January 2016.