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Two Cheers for Rach 3

If classical music is dying, as we know must be the case, for The New York Times tells us so on a regular basis, its death spasms are certainly momentous. First the Four Seasons, then the Three Tenors, the Monks, Anonymous Four, Mozart covers by Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, and now Shine. Young David’s nemesis in the movie, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, composed for an American tour in 1909, has entered popular culture like Mozart’s “Elvira Madigan” Concerto and God reaching out to Man on the Sistine Ceiling. Reviewing a PBS program on intelligent dogs, a television columnist jokes that while some dogs may be smart, his lhasa apso always breaks down in the middle of “Rach 3.”

Worse (I suppose worse), the Times critic, Bernard Holland, has launched an attack on this unfortunate score, on its very substance, not just on its baleful use (and abuse) as a final hurdle in piano competitions. Trashy, says this critic: “a cozy piece of schlock.” Are we keeping classical music alive for this? and so on and so forth, to fill up last year’s Sunday-before-Christmas leader.

It is asking a lot of the Rachmaninov Third to bear the burden of standing in for classical music tout court. Amen; Holland to the contrary, it’s a strong work, though not without its failures, a work of real distinction, modeling ecstasy and resignation, potency, play, despair, and so on in the ineluctable way of all music and with the refinement of classical music. It marks, incidentally, a great advance over Rach 2, another concerto that has known the embrace of popular culture, or at least a little hug. Rach 3 must have its day in court, even though the absence of a specified indictment has to make life more difficult for the defense.

Still, the prosecution’s case is fairly predictable. When concertos are hauled into court one usual charge is indecent exposure, excessive display of virtuosity at the expense of more respectable musical values. Weakness of form is another common accusation—for that is what Donald Tovey, he of the three B’s, meant when he referred sniffingly to “fantasia” form in Liszt’s concertos and “a lighter art-form” even in Mendelssohn’s. Thirdly, complaints are entered about tawdry melodies (“weepy tunes”) repeated over and over again.

Of these charges the last is the most subjective, hence the hardest to refute, and also the most contingent on the times. Vivaldi was considered vulgar by eighteenth-century English snobs, as were Puccini and Richard Strauss earlier in the twentieth century. Given the conditions of the arts in the here and now, stale critical labels like vulgar and tawdry, weepy and schlock should be used with the greatest caution, if at all. That said, in Rachmaninov’s Third it is presumably the ending that offends the most in this regard: the soaring melody, orchestrated to the hilt, that keeps expanding itself in ecstatic gestures of transcendence and release. (The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 was an obvious model.) Are these nine last pages of the score an illegitimate response to the preceding 127 pages of intricate, mostly gloomy, and admittedly somewhat overwrought music?

The response is, in fact, more specific: the ending consummates the most original and surprising theme in this concerto, first introduced in the finale at 1:30 or thereabouts on your CD player display. It feels less like a theme than brute energy—a single, cramped, jerky rhythm hammered out insistently by the piano without interruption (and without any real harmonic movement): the music simply ratchets its way up from low to high, soft to loud, and then back down again.

This arresting whiff of the primal, which can perhaps be traced back to Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, associates Rachmaninov with certain composers and artists active in 1909 into whose orbit he would have been aghast to enter. The theme comes four times, almost mechanically, until the piano softens it into a real melody, and it is this melody, greatly amplified, that ends the concerto so deliriously. Before that amplification, the cramped theme and its whole complex have appeared in both sections 1 and 3 of the finale in much the same form. The apotheosis has been a long time waiting, then, and it has a right to flaunt its ecstasy.

As for section 2, that brings us to the second charge, weakness of form. Except for the cramped theme, section 1 motors along in a rather generic way, until it slows down for what turns out to be a new theme followed by four variations. An amazing idea—and the orchestra stays amazingly static throughout section 2, while the piano is quite the reverse: skittery, fantastic, fascinating. In symphonies, sonatas, string quartets, and especially concertos, it is almost always the finale that is the problematic movement, and I believe Rachmaninov has solved the problem of the finale brilliantly here. For section 2 also reinstates the second theme of the opening movement interestingly (the first theme less well), and it even goes some way toward rationalizing the stiffness of sections 1 and 3.

Weakness of form in the first movement, if that is one of the charges, brings us also to the third charge, excessive virtuosity. Virtuosity reaches its absolute peak in the enormous first-movement cadenza. Rachmaninov’s accomplishment was to incorporate virtuosity into the very pillars of concerto form.

Some version of sonata form was what most concertos relied on up to this time: two (or more) contrasting themes, a development section, a recapitulation that effects a reconciliation of the themes, and (Beethoven’s contribution) usually some sort of apotheosis. Indeed, even though the admirable opening tune of this concerto—its resignation à la Russe distilled out of hushed piano octaves and melodic twists and turns in the minor mode—can hardly be considered apt as a sonata-form first theme, Rachmaninov does adhere to the sonata model up through the development section. This reaches a great climax, whereupon sonata action disintegrates completely.

A superb 60-bar sinking passage unwinds from this climax, a seemingly endless descent into some kind of entropic state from which emerges, after a sort of shudder, the cadenza. And in this cadenza, after a time, the quiet first theme returns in the tonic key as a frenetic fortissimo, leading directly to an even more forceful statement in—the major mode! Apotheosis and recapitulation practically coalesce. (A second, shorter cadenza also authorized by Rachmaninov does things somewhat differently, but joins the ending of the first cadenza at this triple forte. David Helfgott plays the longer cadenza. His playing is generally more stable in the movie soundtrack extracts than in his recent live recording of the concerto.)*

Cadenzas are supposed to be supplements—originally they were even random supplements—to the basic structure of concertos, “the very appendicitis of concerto form,” in Tovey’s testy phrase. On the contrary, and not for the first time in concerto history, this cadenza works functionally, as an essential component of the form. It works through virtuosity, and there is nothing excessive about it at all.

This is not the place for more than an inventory of the movement’s ending sequence of events—wind instruments trooping in one by one to reproach the piano for its infraction; the piano taking comfort from the concerto’s second theme; a full return of the lengthy tune, almost ritual in effect; and the sardonic final page. Again, I am not experiencing a sense of weakness here. This transformation of standard form seems to me novel, persuasive, and expressive. For Rachmaninov, virtuosity is a kind of liberation: apotheosis can happen for the solo only when the orchestra has been sunk out of existence. But virtuosity also means transgression, a transgression that the ending sequence manages to repress. The composer has dug himself an interesting hole here, and I wish I could say hedoes a good job of climbing out of it.

This would have to happen in the second movement, from whose defense team I must recuse myself since I simply do not get it. Two cheers for Rach 3 from this corner of the bench, then, not three. And more than two cheers for classical music. Dying it may be, yet as it continues to be chronicled year by year in The New York Times, time passes and it does not die. Now ninety-eight years old, Rach 3’s life expectancy goes up every year, and given the wonders of bio-science, the piece is likely to end up in some dismaying retirement community of the twenty-second century, toothless, creaky, scarcely ecstatic, but still ready to play and above all garrulous. Asked for the secret of its longevity, classical music will reply, “Back around 2000 I stopped reading the papers.”

  1. *

    With the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Milan Horvat, RCA Victor Red Seal/BMG Classics, 1996, 74321-40378-2. The soundtrack to Shine is on Philips, 1996, 454 710-2/4.

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