Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata in Dm, op. 28

performed by Santiago Rodriguez

I’m quite glad we were able to discuss the Medtner sonata earlier this week, because today we’re discussing a work of equally epic pianistic and musical proportions, similarly Russian in nature, but also in many ways entirely different from Medtner’s early effort.

The work is considered the first of three “Dresden pieces” since they were, you guessed it, composed in Dresden. Another of these Dresden pieces is the second symphony, op. 27, which I must go back and revisit. But have a listen to it and this work, and you may hear some similarities in mindset.

The composer originally began work on the sonata with intentions of somehow adhering to or deriving inspiration from Goethe’s Faust, but that was quickly abandoned. The piece was submitted to revisions, cuts, and advice from Rachmaninoff’s colleagues (Medtner included), completed in April of 1908 and premiered in October of the same year, in fact on October 17, just a few days ago, marking its 108th anniversary. But I had to post Medtner first, because I feel there’s a great contrast to these two works, not intentionally obviously, since Medtner’s first sonata came half a decade before Rachmaninoff’s.

There’s lots of history about why Rachmaninoff decided to leave Moscow and ended up in Dresden, largely due to the crippling failure of his first symphony, which would affect him for years to come. He could get away from “the distractions of Moscow” and live a quiet life. Wikipedia quotes the composer as stating in a letter, “We live here like hermits: we see nobody, we know nobody, and we go nowhere. I work a great deal.” Sounds wonderful.

Retreat from Moscow aside, he apparently still had difficulty completing the work. His intentions for the Faust thing were a big sprawling large-scale program work depicting the source material’s main characters, but it seems even the composer got a bit befuddled by how he was going to structure the piece. After some self-doubt and worries of the piece’s musical merits, the programmatic idea was abandoned (even though its influence is still “clearly” heard; I’m not familiar enough with the Liszt work to see the supposed parallels between the two), and eventually shorted by about 20% to gain the form it currently holds, in three bulky movements, coming in at around 35 minutes or so.

I’ll be honest: I’m not familiar with the second (more famous) piano sonata of Rachmaninoff, but I have to say I feel like this is one of the most intensely serious, powerful, handsome works for piano that Rachmaninoff (or anyone else I can think of) wrote. There’s an overall layout to it that feels different from Medtner’s work we talked about this week, but it has a different kind of intensity.

The first movement gives us one of the most spellbinding beginning passages of any music I’ve ever heard. We talked about the sonorous, bell-like quality in some of Medtner’s writing, but this is not bell-like, it is bells. There’s a spaciousness, a piercing but rounded clarity to the writing, the distance between the treble and bass creating an open, hollow sound that rings out as if across a cavernous open landscape. A few specific tones and intervals are persistently emphasized, as the ringing of a limited set of bells in a far-off church tower.

In contrast with this solemn opening, there is an explosion, a furious outpouring of notes that seem to tumble down whatever mountainside our lofty bell tower sat upon, and the piece is truly underway. The movement is in a very standard sonata form, with the exposition not only reappearing at the end, but themes and motifs from this first movement appearing throughout the remainder of the piece. It’s introspective, virtuosic, and contrasts moments of solemn lonely sonorities with the Promethean fire of Russian piano writing. Among all of this density and virtuosity and contrast is being built the foundation for the rest of the work, brick by brick, in large chunks, until a physical form begins to take shape. The movement ends quietly, and notably in the major, not the minor.

The second movement, instead of moving on and beginning from scratch with another structure, continues with what was established in the first, with the bell-like figures making appearances. I would say it calls Chopin to mind, but not because it sounds like Chopin, simply that it calls him to mind as a potential influence to Rachmaninoff’s lyricism. As with the Chopin variations, it seems here like some content from a concerto or other of the composer may have found its roots in this movement. It sounds similar not just to those later works, but obviously in the building that’s been established from the first movement, and this is an important thing to notice in listening to and appreciating the piece. Each movement has its own merits, for sure, but it’s together that they are more than the sum of their parts. Score reading helps here.

I mentioned Chopin, but he never wrote a sonata like this; perhaps Liszt is more suitable. The almost overwhelming virtuosic fireworks and overall unity of this work, as we shall see, its depth and introspection, bring Liszt’s sonata to mind, but toward the end of the second movement, I find it to be almost a bit indulgent, bordering on a bit sickeningly sweet, or over-rich, but that doesn’t last. The second movement has served its purpose, a softer continuation of the overall story arc established in the first movement.

The third and final movement begins attacca from the second, continuing this complex forward momentum, again with the same gesture that ended the second movement. There are some signature Rachmaninoff things here: for one, we have the haunting Russian bells from the beginning still with us, but in that unmistakable finale-esque gallop. It’s present in the finale of the second and third piano concertos, as a sudden burst of forward-moving energy, sometimes quite bright, but we have a galloping, driving figure here that also presents another of Rachmaninoff’s favorite things, the Dies Irae theme. It’s there, added to our palate of themes and ideas a little later in the game, but it adds power to this finale that needs somehow to wrap up this epic work.

At about a third of the way through the third movement, there is a moderato marking with a direct quote of the opening ‘bells’ theme. Aside from the gallopy figure and the use of the Dies Irae, there isn’t a lot that’s new in this finale, really; it’s a culmination of content already presented, the working out of what’s already been started, but also a long show of pianistic prowess, getting its very meaning from what came before. Seems like a gutsy move, but it brings a strong unity to the overall work. Rather than juxtaposed sections of the same world, the individual movements are inextricably linked.

This sonata, in contrast with Medtner’s, or even some of Rachmaninoff’s other work, seems very introspective. Part of that is the complexity of the work. It may take a few listens to begin to penetrate the sheer density of the music here. It’s not unfathomable or incomprehensibly complex, but it is a hefty work. Grab the score, give the opening few minutes of the first movements a few good listens, and then plunge into the rest of the work. You’ll see it all in there.

I don’t know why this piece is so neglected. I mean, Rachmaninoff did write some of the most famous piano concertos in the history of music, so it’s no pity party, but this is a handsome accomplishment from a composer who was still recovering, perhaps, from the critical failure and depression from his first symphony. The second symphony, op. 27, I feel bears some resemblance to this work. Its first movement is solemn, rich, powerful, and the sonata manages to be equally epic and powerful, but in an introspective, solo setting. The work feels personal, tumultuous, an outworking of emotions, and I can’t see it not being a success in performance, with the right performer.

Rodriguez’ performance is bar none my favorite, but Howard Shelley’s is wonderful. Ashkenazy leaves something to be desired here, for me, and Lugansky and Lisitsa give good readings. But that’s all very subjective. Except for the fact that Rodriguez is the best.

Stay tuned for next week, as we move away from Rachmaninoff and on to some more names and come close to wrapping up our Russian piano series. It’s been an enjoyable one so far!

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