The double anniversary of Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), 150 years after his birth and 80 years after his death, is being celebrated all over the world. A tribute called Soirée Rachmaninoff will open the 2023 Nervi Music Ballet Festival on 2 July and then will be at the Ravenna Festival on 6 July 2023.
Rachmaninoff was considered one of the greatest pianists of his generation, and to help celebrate the man and his music will be one of the finest pianists working today, the young Italian star, Beatrice Rana. She will be joined by the pianist Massimo Spada for music for two pianos, and by her sister, the cellist Ludovica Rana.
Producer Daniele Cipriani created an evening of music and dance called Stravinsky's Love two years ago, with Vladimir Derevianko as Igor Stravinsky and Rana at the piano. The new programme is on similar lines mixing Rachmaninoff's music together with dance choreographed to his music, to give a rich flavour of the Russian composer, conductor, and pianist. His fame as a pianist came about almost by chance after he escaped from Russia with his family in 1917 during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution – needing a larger income than composing gave him, he started to give very successful concerts.
Rachmaninoff was a very generous author for the piano and for us pianists – says Rana – his music is full of energy, poetry, stories, sometimes very melancholic, and always suggestive and full of colours.
We like to think that with this programme we are realising Rachmaninoff's dream of seeing choreography on his Symphonic Dances. This is our birthday gift to him.
Symphonic Dances was his last composition, and he wanted Michel Fokine to create a choreography to it, but Fokine died in 1942, the year after the work's first performance. The choreographer and dancer team Sasha Riva and Simone Repele have used a version for two pianos, which was arranged by the composer himself, for their new work, Alla fine del mondo (At the End of the World).
Riva and Repele have included anecdotal material about Rachmaninoff's life in their piece – his fondness for lilac flowers, his very large hands – as well as his oft-quoted phrase: “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.”
Rachmaninoff's hands, height (6'6″ – 1.98m), and dour face left a strong impression on those who saw him – Stravinsky called Rachmaninoff a “six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl”. Although Rachmaninoff looks as if he's scowling in most photos (and often, apparently, had the same expression when the lens wasn't focused on him) he did seem to have a dry sense of humour. During a concert with violinist Fritz Kreisler in New York, Kreisler lost his place and whispered to Rachmaninoff, “Where are we?”. Rachmaninoff replied, “Carnegie Hall.”
Like many composers, Rachmaninoff's music went out of fashion for a while, even during his lifetime (though, like Puccini, principally among the music ‘connoisseurs'), and he himself admitted in an interview in 1939:
I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new. I have made an intense effort to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.
The esteemed Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (5th edition in 1954), stated:
Technically he was highly gifted, but also severely limited. His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes accompanied by a variety of figures derived from arpeggios. The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff's works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favour.
Ouch. Of course, his Second Piano Concerto (1900-1) launched him into international fame and with Grieg's Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky's First, it remains one of the most frequently performed concertos in the repertoire.
A little over 30 years later, Grove had modified its stance:
…most particularly in the Piano Concerto no2, the essentials of his art had been assembled: the command of the emotional gesture conceived as lyrical melody extended from small motifs, the concealment behind this of subtleties in orchestration and structure, the broad sweep of his lines and forms, the predominant melancholy and nostalgia, the loyalty to the finer Russian Romanticism inherited from Tchaikovsky and his teachers.
His tunes grab at the heartstrings. As more experimental methods of musical composition emerged, Rachmaninoff stuck to his emotional, ‘easy listening', melodist style. Who hasn't wept to Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard's stiff-upper-lip containment in 1945's Brief Encounter with Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No2 prodding at the tear ducts, or laughed at Tom Ewell's dream sequence as he seduces Marilyn Monroe while playing the same piece in 1955's The Seven Year Itch, or felt a lump in their throat as Céline Dion breaks down while singing Eric Carmen's 1975 song All By Myself, based on the same melody. Look it up – All By Myself, Lyricist: Eric Carmen; Composers: Eric Carmen and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff has spent months in the pop charts.
The Oxford Companion to Music concludes its entry on the composer by saying:
[He died of cancer in 1943] leaving a legacy of music which has proved enduringly popular and which has also shown itself to be of key importance in the late Romantic repertory. Moreover, during the last two decades of his life he had made many gramophone recordings, which happily preserve his pearly-toned, clearly articulated piano playing, with its unerring verve, refined legato, and sublime intensity of expression.
Soirée Rachmaninoff opens with his Prelude in C sharp minor heard in a recording performed by the composer himself. Years before Céline Dion, his Prelude in C sharp minor had become a worldwide hit. He played it during his first public concert as a pianist in 1892 and, like New York, New York for Liza Minnelli, the audiences would call out “C-sharp!” for an obligatory encore. Swing and jazz versions were orchestrated for Duke Ellington and Paul Whiteman, it is heard in a Mickey Mouse short, and Harpo Marx tore it to shreds in 1937's A Day at the Races. “Many, many times I wish I had never written it,” Rachmaninoff said.
It is, of course, an outstanding piece.
In Soirée Rachmaninoff, the Prelude is followed by his Vocalise in E minor (another huge hit), performed by the Rana sisters. These and other musical pieces are interspersed with moments of dance. Uwe Scholz – the brilliant German choreographer who died at 45 – created Sonata (from Rachmaninoff's Andante from the Sonata in G minor for cello and piano) and Trio (from the Andantino from Suite No2 for 2 pianos), both abstract works, though they express the hues and nuances of romantic relationships.
The company of dancers include the Ukrainian Oleksii Potiomkin (formerly of the Kyiv Opera House) who, following the beginning of the war in his country, alternates periods in which he is called to protect the capital, with others in which he performs on stage; and the dancers Parvaneh Scharafali and Yumi Aizawa from Iran and Japan. Ettore F Volontieri, the former Director General of the Rachmaninoff Foundation at Villa Senar in Switzerland (where he lived), will read memories and anecdotes based on letters and interviews.
The producer, Cipriani, says,
This, then, is our tribute: to evoke the figure of Rachmaninoff and make his music visible, realising – and all the artists and I are convinced of this – his dream.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.