We tend to develop a shorthand when talking about artists--as if their styles were set in stone. “That’s a Rembrandt.” “Sounds like Handel to me.” “Good old loquacious Tennessee Williams.” But artists grow and change over even short lifetimes. And when a creative mind’s work spans many decades—as is the case with Sergei Rachmaninoff—the changes can be remarkable.
If you don’t believe me, listen to the three pieces played by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra this weekend at the Marcus Center. They represent 45 years of Rachmaninoff’s creative life, and hearing them in the same program offered interesting insights into the mind of a composer.
Conductor Edo de Waart opened with Prince Rostislav, a short tone-poem written when Rachmaninoff was only 18 years old. And in it, you could hear him grappling for his signature style. There’s more than a touch of Wagner in the opening section (others might hear Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov), with the MSO’s cellos delivering the unison theme with gentle warmth. Moving into the more animated second section, you could hear the composer’s blossoming love for colorful orchestration and dramatic dynamics.
Written more than 35 years later, the Piano Concerto No. 4 is performed almost as rarely as Rostislav (both were MSO premieres), but for different reasons. As Isaac Thompson wrote in his insightful program notes, Rachmaninoff hit the road from 1918 to 1926, performing as a soloist all over the world. His exposure to the pioneering music of the early 20th century—Stravinsky, Bartok, etc.—made him self conscious about his more traditional romanticism. And, it seems, he tried to adapt. You can hear this clearly in the Fourth Concerto, particularly in the first movement, an attempt to out-Prokofiev Prokofiev. Joyce Yang played it with brilliant technique and canny insight into the piece’s structure. But even so, it seemed flighty and episodic. Rachmaninoff began to show his truer form in the Largo, built on a simple falling motif and characterized by dramatic changes in color. And the third movement was Rachmaninoff at his virtuosic best, played in thrilling tempos with bravura passage work by Yang, who completed a five-concert series of Rachmaninoff concertos with this concert.
De Waart made a brilliant case for the virtues of the Third Symphony, which has often been dismissed as a retrograde trifle. He didn’t skimp on the romantic leanings, coaxing the cellos and violins to a beautifully phrased statement of the early, unifying theme. He embraced the syncopated energy of the Slavonic dance rhythms, and also negotiated the abrupt shifts in orchestral color without driving the music apart. And there is a lot to bring together here--just ask the woodwind players about their wild ride of a soli cadenza just before the piece's final cadence. Judging from this reading, Rachmaninoff was not only an eclectic composer, but a thoroughly modern one.