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Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Opus 40

Sergei Rachmaninoff  (1873-1943)
composed  1914-26, revised 1927-28 and again in 1941

At a Glance

Rachmaninoff composed most of his Piano Concerto No. 4 in 1926, after doing some initial sketches as early as 1914.   The composer was soloist for the work’s first performance, on March 18, 1927, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski.  

This concerto runs about 25 minutes in performance.  Rachmaninoff scored it for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, english horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, cymbals), and strings.

The Cleveland Orchestra first presented Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto as part of the 1973 Blossom Festival in August of that year, with soloist Augustin Anievas under Louis Lane’s direction. It has been programmed only occasionally since then, most recently in January 1996, when Jean-Yves Thibaudet was soloist with Vladimir Ashkenazy on the podium.

About the Music

Rachmaninoff’s first Piano Concerto was composed in 1891, the Second in 1901, and the Third in 1909.  

The Second is still one of the most popular concertos in all, and the Third is a great challenge for pianists — and, therefore, also in no danger of being neglected.  

But Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto is the stepchild of the group.  It was not well received in his lifetime, and is less often played than the others.  In part because it can be a challenge for players to interpret or audiences to understand.

The concerto’s genesis was not straightforward.  It was probably begun in 1914 when the composer still maintained his routine of leaving Moscow for the summer months to work in the country.  Nothing emerged from that year, however, nor from a further spell of work on it in 1917, his last year visiting his country estate and living in his homeland.  

In the unsettled years that followed the Russian Revolutions of 1917 — Rachmaninoff slipped out of the country with his family at the end of the year — little more work was done, and the concerto did not coalesce into shape until 1926, a year spent partly in Dresden, partly in New York, and with plenty of time spent completing the concerto.  

Rachmaninoff gave the first performance in March 1927, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, with further performances in New York, Washington, and Baltimore. 

Accustomed to spiky novelties from Stravinsky and Hindemith, the critics were universally sour on the new piece.  

Rachmaninoff set about revising it, reducing it by over a hundred bars.  He played it in its new form in London in 1929, to a very similar cool reception as in America.  Although he was lionized as a player every time he appeared, this was one of several times in his life when Rachmaninoff could not count on winning friends by composing.  He made a second revision to the score in 1941, in which year he made a recording, the last time he ever played it.  

This rather bleak history springs from the disappointment of his admirers that this concerto did not, on first hearing at least, live up to the previous two.  The Fourth is less obviously melodious and less clearly constructed.  Yet the brilliant piano writing is still in evidence, and there is imaginative orchestration too.  But the work is structured in short, disparate sections, and there are perhaps too many ideas, rather than too few.  Rachmaninoff was clearly trying not to repeat himself, while many of his admirers, perhaps, simply were hoping for more of the same.  Too many had, perhaps pegged this composer into a hole, while he was still wanting to try new things and evolve. 

The Music

Whereas, for example, his earlier concertos, taking a cue from Tchaikovsky, climaxed with full-blooded statements of a strong theme heard earlier, the opening theme of the Fourth Concerto is presented by the piano in grand handfuls against a throbbing accompaniment in the wind at the very beginning, as if it was the crowning moment of the movement.  His purpose is not clear until the end of the movement which, in contrast, wistfully recapitulates the second subject in the first violins over rippling arpeggios in the piano, followed by an abrupt coda, which seems to cut them off in midstream.  

Another oddity in this opening movement is what sounds like a noisy conclusion in the key of C major, only to move away wistfully to comment with other themes and motifs.  

The beautiful slow movement is based on the simplest of ideas: three descending notes of the scale E-D-C, broadly harmonized, and comprised essentially of a single paragraph without any contrasting middle section. 

Then the finale picks up a small leaping phrase from the first movement and runs along at a swift pace without ever allowing any theme (or any key) to linger for long.  In short, Rachmaninoff makes few concessions to his listeners’ expectations other than to dazzle them with speed and brilliance.  

In fact, the Fourth was not quite Rachmaninoff’s last piano concerto, except in name.  His next work for piano and orchestra was the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a work whose design (built with a theme, followed by a set of imaginative and at times dazzling variations) and effect are as clear as they are obscure in the Fourth Concerto.  He was, ultimately a composer of far wider range than many of his critics — during his life and even today — don’t often enough fully admit.  

Hugh Macdonald © 2019

Hugh Macdonald is Avis H. Blewett Professor Emeritus of Music at Washington University in St. Louis.  He has written books on Beethoven, Berlioz, Bizet, and Scriabin.