Simon Rattle conducts Rachmaninov and Stravinsky

30 Aug 2014
Opening of the 2014/2015 season

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Sergei Rachmaninov
    Symphonic Dances, op. 45 (38 min.)

  • Igor Stravinsky
    L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), ballet (58 min.)

  • free

    The Berliner Philharmoniker welcome the new season (8 min.)

The “last Romantic composer” and the enfant terrible of classical Modernism: back in November 2012 Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker presented a highly acclaimed concert programme consisting of the music of two Russian composers whose lives were as different as can be imagined by performing Sergei Rachmaninov’s choral symphony The Bells and Igor Stravinsky’s ballet music Le Sacre du printemps, originally fraught with scandal. Rachmaninov fled the Russian October Revolution in 1917 via Scandinavia and Switzerland to the USA, where he embarked on a second career as a piano virtuoso. Towards the end of his life he had to acknowledge: “The whole world is open to me; only one place is closed off, and that is my own country, Russia.”

The life of Igor Stravinsky, who was nine years younger, turned out very differently. As a 26-year old, he was engaged by the Ballets russes in 1909 to orchestrate several piano pieces by Edvard Grieg and Frédéric Chopin. One year later, the premiere of L’Oiseau de feu transformed him into a celebrity. The world was open to Stravinsky, and from then on, as a cosmopolitan par excellence, nothing was more alien to him than homesickness. At the start of the 2014/15 season, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker juxtaposed Rachmaninov’s secret Fourth Symphony – the Symphonic Dances op. 45, which bid a wistful farewell to the Romantic musical era – and Igor Stravinsky’s brilliant Firebird music, which dazzles in every conceivable orchestral colour.

Russia – Forever and pour toujours

Observations on Sergei Rachmaninov and Igor Stravinsky

“In this accursed country, you’re surrounded by nothing but Americans and the ‘business, business’ they are forever doing, clutching you from all sides and driving you on. I am very busy and very tired. Here is my perpetual prayer: God give me strength and patience. Everyone treats me nicely and kindly, but I am horribly bored with it all, and I feel that my character has been quite spoiled here.”

In Exile – Sergei Rachmaninov

When Sergei Rachmaninov undertook his first American tour in 1909 and wrote these lines in a letter to his cousin, Zoya Pribitkova, he could not have imagined that “this accursed country” would become his second home less than ten years later. But what does “home” mean? Unlike other Russian emigrants such as Vladimir Horowitz, Serge Koussevitzky, Nathan Milstein and Igor Stravinsky, Rachmaninov never applied for American citizenship; his character, his status and his music remained Russian.

In the Soviet Union he was not forgiven for emigrating to the United States for a long time. He was denounced as disloyal, and his compositions were regarded with contempt after 1917. In America, on the other hand, although Rachmaninov was welcomed with open arms and enjoyed spectacular success as a pianist, composer and conductor, the American music world never really regarded him as one of its own. He continued to be a foreigner who remained true to the Russian temperament of his musical language even (or perhaps particularly) during the years of his American exile. The Three Russian Songs op. 41 for chorus and orchestra confirm this, as do his Third Symphony op. 44 and the three Symphonic Dances, which were considered “sounds of home” by his Russian immigrant friends.

Symphonic Dances

The Symphonic Dances – Rachmaninov’s op. 45 and his last work – were completed in New York on 29 October 1940 and premiered on 3 January 1941 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, to whom they are also dedicated; a short time later the composer arranged the orchestral score for two pianos. The work was initially supposed to be called Fantastic Dances, with programmatic titles for the movements: “Noon”, “Twilight” and “Midnight”. The unusual comment “I thank thee, Lord” on the last page of the score is not the only indication that Rachmaninov attached particular importance to this work; the many references to earlier compositions are also astonishing, as though Rachmaninov were contemplating his previous works once again. The saxophone solo in the first dance, for example, is reminiscent of the opening of the Third Symphony; the close of the Étude-Tableau op. 33 no. 7 and the first chorus of the cantata The Bells are heard a few bars later, while the coda is taken from the Suite op. 17 for two pianos and the First Symphony. The second dance – a valse tristeof sorts – is free of such self-quotations for the most part, while the third draws on earlier works over long stretches, including the Dies irae(Day of Wrath), which Rachmaninov had already used in his First Symphony, The Bells, the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Furthermore, the entire final third of the movement is nothing but a paraphrase of number 9 of his choral vespers, All-Night Vigil op. 37, which is specifically alluded to in Rachmaninov’s marginal note “Alleluia” in the score of the Symphonic Dances: Russia forever!

Igor Stravinsky

It is not clear whether Rachmaninov and the nine-year-younger Igor Stravinsky ever met in Russia. Neither had a particularly high opinion of the other. Stravinsky criticized Rachmaninov’s works as “grandiose film music”, while Rachmaninov admired only two of Stravinsky’s scores: Petrushka and The Firebird. When he heard a radio broadcast of the Firebird in the 1940s, Rachmaninov reportedly exclaimed with tears in his eyes, “Lord, how much more than genius this is – it is real Russia!”

They did eventually meet during their California exile in summer 1942, however. Rachmaninov had asked his biographer, Sergei Bertensson, to arrange it: “As I know how much Igor Fyodorovich has always disliked my compositions, even though he respects me as a pianist, and he must know my attitude to modern music, I’m not sure whether I could invite him and his wife to my house ...” Igor and Vera Stravinsky accepted the invitation with pleasure, and the evening was spent in animated conversation about everything conceivable – except music. Shortly afterwards Rachmaninov and his wife Natalia paid a return visit to the Stravinskys.

L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird)

In 1909, the same year that Sergei Rachmaninov embarked on his first journey to America, the art critic and impresario Sergei Diaghilev presented the fourth Saison Russe (Russian Season) at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. On a total of 25 evenings such works as the “Polovtsian Dances” from Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, the Chopin ballet Les Sylphides and Nikolai Tcherepnin’s Le Pavillon d’Armide set off such a frenzy of enthusiasm that the public could hardly wait to see the Ballets Russes again the following year.

Immediately after returning to his native Russia, Diaghilev began planning the fifth Saison Russe in Paris. Although he had staged only earlier works and choreographies in 1909, Diaghilev wanted to present at least two premieres the following year: first of all, Michel Fokine’s choreographic drama based on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, and secondly, a ballet adapted from the old Russian folk tale жар-птица (Zhar’-ptitsa) – the Firebird, who helps the brave Prince Ivan free the 13 princesses held captive by the wicked sorcerer Kashchei. Diaghilev turned to the composer Anatoly Lyadov, who had excellent credentials in the tradition of Rimsky-Korsakov with fairy-tale tone poems such as Baba-Yaga, Kikimora and The Enchanted Lake. Although Lyadov agreed, he did not deliver a score, so the impresario – extremely pressed for time – finally withdrew the commission and gave it to someone else: a 27-year-old, as yet entirely unknown pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov. Diaghilev had heard a brief but brilliant orchestral work entitled Feu d’artifice (Fireworks) by this young composer shortly before, and it seemed promising enough to take a chance on him – Igor Stravinsky.

The premiere of L’Oiseau de feu, conducted by Gabriel Pierné at the Paris Opéra on 25 June 1910, marked the beginning of an unprecedentedly successful collaboration. Tamara Karsavina danced the role of the Firebird, Michel Fokine – who was also the choreographer – that of Prince Ivan, and Alexis Bulgakov the Kashchei, with scenery by Léon Bakst. Although Stravinsky’s music is still firmly rooted in the tradition of his teacher and “The Five” (also known as the “Mighty Handful”), a group of 19th-century Russian composers who aimed to create a nationalist school of Russian music, at the same time it introduces an entirely new element of colour. Like the Firebird itself, it shimmers and glows in a kaleidoscope of orchestral effects never heard before, displaying a rhythmic power that already anticipates the next two Diaghilev ballets, Petrushka and Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). The audience responded with wild applause, calling the ensemble and the composer back for one curtain call after another: Russia pour toujours!

Michael Stegemann

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

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