Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Piano Concerto in C#m, op. 30

performed by the English Northern Philharmonia under David Lloyd-Jones,
Malcolm Binns, piano
This is unquestionably a very Russian piece, but it is also unquestionably a Lisztian piece.
It was completed around 1883 and first performed in 1884 at one of Balakirev’s Free Music School concerts in St. Petersburg, by whom I am not sure.
I am learning I’m not super fond of this Balakirev guy. As ignorant as I am of his works overall (aside from Islamey, and that just barely), reading about him makes him sound quite knowledgable and insightful, but this may just be more as a result of his familiarity with and adherence to folk themes of Russia and his promotion of musical nationalism. He created “The Five”, a group of über-Russian composers, for a time, he himself being the only professional musician, the other four still ‘amateurs’. It seems he groomed and encouraged lots of composers and even individual compositions to carry on the style he himself picked up and continued from Glinka.
It was Balakirev who suggested to Rimsky-Korsakov that he write a piano concerto. Balakirev was himself
a pianist, but Rimsky-Korsakov was not. It seems almost as if the suggestion was a challenge. The composer says:
“It must be said that it sounded beautiful and proved entirely satisfactory in the sense of piano technique and style; this greatly astonished Balakirev, who found my concerto to his liking. He had by no means expected that I … should know how to compose anything entirely pianistic.”
The latter statement is what makes me feel the suggestion was either in jest or derision. I don’t quite understand it.
Apparently this piece has a secure place in the repertoire of nationalist Russia, but is little known in the West. Rimsky-Korsakov himself is not unknown, but this is a concerto that comes in at a mere 15-16 minutes, albeit what sounds to me like a very difficult 15-16 minutes.
I was pleased to read in the Wikipedia article after my first few listens of this piece that RK directly acknowledges his “indebtedness” to Franz Liszt, as this sounds very much like one of Liszt’s concerti, just more Russian. It is light, energetic, and refreshing and flittery without lacking any substance or clarity or seriousness.
I’d been spending too much time preparing for what I thought was going to be the next post, a piece I’d listened to in the past and a number of times since, but one that I just couldn’t quite understand yet (in the sense that I didn’t have anything insightful to say about it from an emotional listener’s standpoint, not performance-wise). I’d even started writing it, but it wasn’t coming together. Then I got this little guy, and it’s only a few minutes longer than what I’d intended to get around to writing, but it’s so refreshing.
It’s a single-movement work with three distinct sections, and is monothematic. This approach, as well as its relative brevity, make this piece delightfully pleasant, approachable, and unpretentious.
The writing is clean, crisp, straightforward and very rich. It has a quality reminiscent somehow of a fairytale. I believe this comes from the clarity, the drama, and wonderful balance between the orchestra and piano, rich orchestration, and amazing lyrical expressiveness, especially in the second section. The lyricalness and stunning, shimmering second section screams Rachmaninoff, and to my understanding this piece made a big impression on him, with his own first piano concerto published within a decade of this piece’s premiere. I think anyone that enjoys any of his piano concerti (or just any of his symphonic works) will love this piece. It really does sound like Liszt made a guest appearance in late 19th-century Russia. This piece was premiered two years before Liszt died, and is dedicated to him, so I would assume he heard it, likely at or even before the premiere.
This piece is thoroughly, solidly, richly enjoyable, and entirely approachable and enjoyable without having to think or research or meditate on, while still retaining a meaningful theme and direction and progress and content. It was a delightful surprise and quickly became one of the more enjoyable of piano concertos I have listened to.
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