Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no. 1 in F#m, op. 1

as performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Jascha Horenstein; Earl Wild, piano

Wait, what? A piano concerto? Yes.

So it just now occurred to me that this is the composer’s opus no. 1.

And that is only another supporting reason for the opening statement I was going to make, which is that Rachmaninoff, it seems, had a terrible time with ones. Considering what today’s post is, I’m sure you can guess what Thursday’s will be. C’mon. Just take a guess. I’m sure you can get it. Great! Read that article too.

Anyway, I figured, after a long string (right about a month and a half, at this point, so sort of halfway through our series) of symphonies, we could take the opportunity to change things up just a bit and do this. Rachmaninoff is also one of the most famous names in our series (and classical music in general, Russian or otherwise), and we’ve already done his second and third piano concertos (and seen them in concert multiple times), so let’s do his first piano concerto as well.

The Wikipedia article on this piece uses the words “vivacity and impetuosity” when describing the work and how it differs from the composer’s later works. It was completed in 1891 or early 1892, and the composer “was satisfied with what he’d written.” Rachmaninoff himself performed the first movement on March 17, 1892 with Vasily Safonov conducting, and this is maybe the only time the composer performed the original version of the piece before revising it decades later in 1917, by which time his other two concertos were already quite well-known. Despite that, its dedicatee, Alexander Siloti, apparently programmed the original version a number of times.

The composer, mind you, as the opus one might suggest, was very young. As in… he was 18 years old. Composition students (presumably at the Moscow Conservatory), as Wiki mentions, were given the suggestion to base their compositions a model, a reference work, as a compositional exercise, and Rachmaninoff chose Grieg, “literally building his music into it. With all his other concertos, Rachmaninoff would prove more enterprising.”

We won’t discuss the 1891 and 1917 versions, but Wikipedia makes the statement that it is an enlightening exercise to do so, as it shows the degree to which the composer had grown and progressed. I’d certainly hope so. In any case, we’re hearing the 1917 version anyway. Wikipedia says that “there is a considerable thinning of texture in the orchestral and piano parts and much material that made the original version diffuse and episodic is removed.”

And that kind of hints at my general feel of the piece. I think (or certainly hope) I would, if given a first listen to this with no idea who it was, guess it was a Rachmaninoff work, or at least a similar-but-not-as-polished work from a similar-but-not-as-polished composer. And then, remember, op. 1. Can’t fault him for that. I feel like a lot of what we hear here (piano virtuosity for one, and the way it interacts with the orchestra; I don’t know… something) is definitively Rachmaninoff, but again, we’re hearing the final final version. One can imagine the first version was even more rough-edged and unpolished, or to put it more objectively, ‘youthful.’

Instead of as in the Grieg or Schumann concertos, we open with horns, not timpani, but we do get a big, abrupt, early entry from the piano. If someone played it and asked you (perhaps leading the witness if necessary) what piece this was similar to, you might recognize it right off the bat. Those searing horns at the beginning, and the big splash from the piano set the tone for the work. Those horns also return later in the piece. Hard to miss. I found this opening movement (especially the very beginning) to kind of infect my brain, I’d get it stuck in my head, and eventually end up mind-humming the Grieg.

The first movement of this work is the longest, making up about half of the concerto (at least in this recording), meaning this work is also really quite short compared to the composer’s towering, more well-known concerti, and some well-placed moments of playfulness show up here as slightly less polished. While I did state earlier that I felt this work is far rougher and less polished than those glorious two concertos he would write after this, there are moments where one listens and can say “yeah, that’s a Rachmaninoff concerto,” no matter how immature or youthful the work is.

The middle movement, I feel, is one of those. It, too, opens with horns. While it may lack the sock-you-in-the-heart melodies that seem to come from everywhere in some of the composer’s other slow movements, it does have something identifiable to it. Granted, we’re talking about the 1917 version, so there’s arguably much more about it that reflects the composer’s later talents and intentions than the first version. There are moments of naked, delicate piano stuff, where the orchestra disappears into a shimmering curtain of background accompaniment, but while there are some really captivating moments, they’re more fleeting than enduring.

The third movement is an equally small thing. Can I just say here… I really like short concertos. A serious work doesn’t have to be long. Structured, focused, well laid out, with a soloist and all that. Liszt’s first two piano concertos come to mind. Neither is really very long, but they’re both really fantastic, exciting pieces. Rimsky-Korsakov’s, while not really as memorable as Liszt’s, is great, and neither of the Schumanns’ piano concertos are very long-winded. I like that.

While this work is far from Rachmaninoff’s most famous, it’s certainly approachable, and whatever was done to it in 1917 I’m sure was a great improvement. Horns kind of show up again here prominently, and this is another case, like in the second, it seems, where a big exciting rambunctious movement quiets down to create some real contrast. This lyrical section might be even more beautiful than the stuff in the second movement. The latter half of the movement is fun and thrillingly virtuosic and light-hearted, but a bit all-over-the-place. It gives the majority of the movement a kind of carefree virtuosic playfulness, maybe at the expense of rigor and cleanliness.

I dunno. I think when compared with the epic monstrosities that are his second and third concertos, it’s hard for this one to get its own spotlight, even after the (perhaps quite heavy) revisions. I don’t dislike it. In fact I like it quite a lot more than, say, Arensky’s also very early op. no. 2, or honestly, even either of the Chopin concertos, but just because it’s half the length of either. In any case, it’s easily one of Rachmaninoff’s least successful works, but that’s almost not even a fair comparison.

The work we’ll be discussing Thursday was an even greater failure, but has arguably made an even greater comeback since its premiere. Stay tuned.

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