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Stephen Hough ©
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Mäkelä & Hough: Russian Masterpieces

Recorded in May 2018

In this concert from May 2018, young Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä made a stunning, unforgettable debut with our Orchestra. Klaus was to have returned to Southam Hall for concerts with the Orchestra on May 6 & 7, 2020; in light of that, we are especially glad to present this concert for a second listen.

First on this all-Russian program is Modest Mussorgsky’s Prelude to Act I from the opera, Khovanshchina. He intended this to be his final opera, and, in fact, Mussorgsky died before completing it, leaving close colleague Rimsky-Korsakov to finish it. Mussorgsky described the Prelude as a musical sunrise over Red Square; it begins delicately like a mist over the Moscow River, and a beautiful melody emerges.

The brilliant British pianist Stephen Hough then performs Rachmaninoff’s lush Piano Concerto No. 1. It is hugely expressive music filled with dreamy yearning, and the Finale is a whirlwind display of virtuosity, ending in an exciting flourish. Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 closes the program. Premiered in 1908, it has become his most beloved and well-known orchestral work. You will connect immediately to the opening motif we first hear in the cellos and basses. Then listen especially for our wonderful principal clarinet Kimball Sykes in the third movement’s “aria”, and the final movement’s evolution through darkness into triumphant optimism.

Alexander’s Listening Guide: Rachmaninoff

If any composer was the soundtrack of my childhood, then Rachmaninoff - or Macraninoff as I first called him - was it. In the womb I was bombarded with the notes of his Suites for Two Pianos and Symphonic Dances as my mother practiced and performed them with my father throughout pregnancy. In my first months and years it was then the solo piano music and concertos as my father toured and recorded them. If music was my first language, then my first conversations were with Rachmaninov.

Which is why I often have to step back and ask myself whether the searing intensity, beauty, excitement and melancholy that I hear in his music is some Freudian projection or an unbiased reaction to this extraordinary musician’s work.

Because few of the greats have been quite as polarising within the music community as Rachmaninoff. This giant, both in stature and standing, who led a triple life as one of the greatest piano virtuosos in history, composer of eminence and conductor of enormous repute, has been frequently dismissed by a particularly snobbish set of critics and listeners, who judged him as behind his times and overly sentimental. And yet few lists of audience top-ten favourites have appeared without at least one of his works. He is beloved worldwide.

His own words help perhaps best to explain why:

‘Music must come from the heart and it must be directed to the heart. The sound in score or keyboard is never neutral, impersonal, empty: it is the result of incomparable intensity, flame and the saturation of beauty. Music should exalt.’

Exultant. From the heart, to the heart. A perfect description of his music.

But his was the era of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, of Shostakovich and Bartók. Compared to these revolutionary voices, Rachmaninoff’s music was rooted in a romanticism that, particularly after the Great War, seemed foreign to many.

Rachmaninoff wrote his 1st Piano Concerto in 1891, aged 17, while still studying at Moscow’s Conservatoire. It is his ‘opus 1’, his first published work. And yet the version you hear on this recording - and which is most commonly performed - was finalised much later, in 1917 after the successes of this 2nd and 3rd Concertos.

The original version is less chromatic, more obviously influenced by his great idol Tchaikovsky and, as with the revised version, modelled on the classical three movement structure. A declamatory Horn fanfare, a piano flourish (Rachmaninoff hated waiting to start) and a contrasting and typically soulful theme from the orchestra herald the opening of the concerto and we are led inexorably through a series of glittering staccato passages and passionate melodic lines to a mighty cadenza, replete with great fistfuls of chords.

As had been the case for centuries, Rachmaninoff himself was the intended soloist for his own concertos and as such they showcase an extraordinary virtuosity. Renowned in his time for the clarity of his finger work, the brilliance of his voicing, the give-and-take of his phrasing and his extraordinary command of colour, Rachmaninoff also had enormous hands: He could stretch C Eb G C G with his left hand.

The second movement opens with a melancholic rising gesture, not dissimilar to the music that opens the 2nd Symphony, and continues with a long arching piano line, which is quintessential Rachmaninoff - tender yet forthright, strong and yet vulnerable. The orchestra joins with teardrop accompaniments and we are swept through this gorgeous movement and on, with a bang, into the rhythmically complex and vital finale, once again an ebullient showcase for the virtuoso.

Between the 1st Piano Concerto and his 2nd Symphony, Rachmaninoff suffered from a deep depression. His idol Tchaikovsky passed away, his 1st Symphony received a disastrous reception at its premiere and he resorted to a course of hypnotherapy to ease a writer’s block which had come over him. The treatment was a success and the result was his 2nd Piano Concerto - dedicated to his psychotherapist no less! - one of the greatest keyboard works ever conceived.

As revolution was stirring in his homeland, Rachmaninoff took his family to the great musical hub of Dresden, where, 12 years after the disastrous debut of his 1st Symphony, he wrote his 2nd. Its four movements are packed with unbridled sensuality, beauty, rhythmic verve and passion. It is one of the great romantic symphonic gestures and has a slow movement that makes your heart bleed with melancholy.

Rachmaninoff sought, in every interpretation as a performer and every work as a composer, the ‘tochka’, or arrival point of the emotional and structural content of a piece. No matter how much praise he would receive for a performance, if he sensed that he had failed to hit this point, he would be disappointed. As this extraordinary symphony sweeps over you, you will feel these waves of emotion building and leading you forward, inexorably, to that point, to that ‘tochka’. It is why audiences love him so much and it is why he can feel dangerously sentimental to others. Because Rachmaninoff was open and generous and brimming with passion. He was exultant. And he spoke directly from his passionate heart to yours.

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