Rachmaninov and the “Philadelphia Sound”

Rachmaninov and conductor Eugene Ormandy during a rehearsal at the Academy of Music in 1938. (from the Philadelphia Orchestra's website).
Rachmaninov and conductor Eugene Ormandy during a rehearsal at the Academy of Music in 1938. (from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s website).

 

Great orchestras develop an institutional collective memory. As conductors and players come and go, they often leave a subtle mark on the sound, style, and soul of the ensemble. New players are assimilated into a dynamic, ever-evolving team. The esteemed history of the Philadelphia Orchestra is a case in point.

For years the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for its distinctive, darkly opulent sound, especially evident in the lush, velvety warmth of its string section. The “Philadelphia Sound” likely emerged under the leadership of Leopold Stokowski (music director from 1912 to 1938), who discarded a baton and conducted with his enormous, expressive hands. The sound continued to develop under Eugene Ormandy (music director from 1936 to 1980). Balance favoring the bottom voices (bass and cello) seems to have contributed to tonal richness and depth. Also, the dry acoustics of the Academy of Music may have played a role in shaping the “Philadelphia Sound,” as conductors attempted to compensate for the cavernous concert hall’s weaknesses.

The old Philadelphia Orchestra never sounded more vibrant than when it was performing the music of Sergei Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov’s long association with the orchestra is one of music history’s most fascinating examples of mutual influence between a composer and orchestra. Both Stokowski and Ormandy championed Rachmaninov’s music, beginning with Stokowski’s January 3, 1913 performance of the tone poem, Isle of the Dead. Rachmaninov’s final work, the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, first performed on January 3, 1941, was dedicated to Ormandy and the orchestra. Rachmaninov is said to have composed with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s sound in his mind. The sensuous beauty of Rachmaninov’s music surely left its imprint on the orchestra, as well.

Many excellent recordings have been made of Rachmaninov’s orchestral music in the intervening years, but there’s something uniquely soulful about the old Philadelphia recordings. Here is a sample:

Symphony No. 2

Eugene Ormandy recorded Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony four times: Once in 1934 with the Minneapolis Symphony, and again in Philadelphia in 1951, 1959, and 1973. The final recording restores the work to its original form, without Rachmaninov’s approved cuts. The performance below was a June, 1979 PBS broadcast, celebrating Eugene Ormandy’s 80th birthday. It’s amazing to watch Ormandy’s seemingly effortless sense of control. There’s nothing flamboyant or flashy in his conducting, yet he draws incredible power and warmth from the orchestra.

For Rachmaninov, the Second Symphony, written between 1906 and 1907, emerged out of uncertainty and self-doubt. Following the disastrous premiere of the First Symphony and the ensuing harsh criticism, Rachmaninov fell into debilitating long-term depression. The music transcends all of this. The Second Symphony’s melodies blossom and soar with gratitude, passion for life, and sensuality. Similar to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the first movement’s opening motive runs like a thread through the entire work.

The opening of the second movement hints at the Dies Irae (from the Roman Catholic mass for the Dead), which shows up throughout Rachmaninov’s music. Brief, passing motives throughout the movement return in later pieces, such as the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Symphonic Dances (listen to the flute and clarinet lines at 18:06 and the four note motive at the end of the fugue section at 20:30).

The opening of the third movement shows us all of its cards up front, embracing us with an expansive statement of the movement’s main theme before moving away. This theme returns in the final movement at a moment when we least expect it. One of my favorite passages begins at 29:36, as the music reaches increasingly higher toward its climax. Listen to the way the horn line soars above the strings.

The final movement explodes with joyful exuberance, at moments paying homage to Tchaikovsky. We hear hints of the adventures of the previous movements, and then have a sense of spirited transcendence.

  1. Largo — Allegro moderato 0:00
  2. Allegro molto 16:00
  3. Adagio 24:26
  4. Allegro vivace 35:29

  • Ormandy’s 1974 recording: iTunes, Amazon
  • Ormandy’s 1959 recording: ArkivMusic
  • Ormandy’s 1951 recording: iTunes
  • Charles Dutoit’s 1995 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra (excerpt)

Piano Concerto No. 3

This 1939 recording features Rachmaninov performing the Piano Concerto in D minor, Op. 30, No. 3 with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra:

  1. Allegro ma non tanto 0:00
  2. Intermezzo: Adagio 13:50
  3. Finale: Alla breve 22:26

Vocalise

Rachmaninov conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra for this 1929 recording. Here is Rachmaninov’s orchestral arrangement of Vocalise, Op.34 No.14:

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Here is a December 24, 1934 recording featuring Rachmaninov performing Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 with Leopold Stokowski conducting:

The Eighteenth Variation

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

Last week we heard a sample of music inspired by Niccolò Paganini’s solo violin Caprice No. 24, which included Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43. Let’s return to the Rachmaninov and “drop the needle” at one of its most memorable moments, the Eighteenth Variation.

This stunningly beautiful melody seems far removed from Paganini’s original bouncy theme in A minor, but it actually develops from the motivic seed of Paganini’s first five notes (the top line in the example below). Rachmaninov begins by inverting the motive, or turning it upside down (the bottom line). Next, it’s transformed from A minor to D-flat major…a completely different emotional world. Pianist Stephen Hough demonstrates this evolution here.

The restless and expansive melody moves away from home, continuing to reach higher, until it arrives at a surprise climactic chord which forces a resolution. Listen to the harmonic tension and occasional dissonance in the lines under the melody. A lot of the Eighteenth Variation’s drama is created by these voices.

This performance is from Valentina Lisitsa’s 2012 recording with the London Symphony and conductor Michael Francis. Also listen to a classic recording of Arthur Rubinstein accompanied by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Variation 18)

 

Paganini’s Catchy Tune

Niccolò Paganini
Niccolò Paganini

It’s a simple and catchy melody…so memorable and ripe for development that, for over 200 years, composers haven’t been able to stop using it as the inspiration for an unending stream of variations. Set in A minor, the theme of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 bounces between tonic and dominant (scale degrees I and V), before entering a downward sequence which brings the melody home. A series of variations follow, which almost push the violin, and the violinist, to their limit. 

With Paganini, the age of the dazzling virtuoso rock star was born. Soloists such as Paganini and Franz Liszt became larger-than-life heroes, mesmerizing audiences in Europe’s new public concert halls. Written between 1805 and 1809, Paganini’s 24 Caprices are a series of short, unaccompanied virtuoso miniatures. Each caprice features a unique technical challenge, from flying ricochet bowing, to left hand pizzicato, to fingered octaves and multiple stops. Caprice No. 24 is the collection’s electrifying finale.

Let’s start by listening to the catchy theme and variations which have inspired so many composers. Notice how many far-reaching variations spring from Paganini’s theme and the distinct atmosphere created by each variation. Consider the uniquely fun spirit surrounding a musical theme and variations. It’s as if the composer is saying, “Look what I can do!” Each musical adventure seems to eclipse the last, while, like jazz, it’s all based on the same blueprint or musical DNA.

Here is Caprice No. 24 played by Ilya Kaler:

Liszt’s Grandes études de Paganini

While Paganini expanded the technical capabilities of the violin, Franz Liszt set out to revolutionize piano technique. In 1838 he published a collection of “studies” based on Paganini Caprices. Beyond the obvious virtuoso fireworks, the music exhibits a striking harmonic inventiveness. Listen to the almost demonic fifth variation (1:55), which would sound at home in a contemporary film soundtrack.

Here is Etude No. 6 performed by Jerome Rose:

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Paganini

In 1863 Johannes Brahms wrote his own Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35. Like Liszt, Brahms intended these variations to be “studies,” focusing on a variety of aspects of piano technique. He presented them in two books.

One of Brahms’ favorite compositional techniques is to shift our perception of the downbeat, causing us to become momentarily “lost”. Listen carefully and you’ll hear fairly shocking examples of this rhythmic complexity (3:31). Brahms also begins to move away from Paganini’s established harmonic blueprint into increasingly adventurous territory (4:55, 7:28, 8:47, 15:11, 20:09). The original motives are fragmented, turned upside down and re-harmonized. Suddenly new and strikingly different melodies and harmonies emerge.

Brahms achieves an amazing sense of drama in this piece. At times, it’s easy to hear distinct characters coming to life in the voices. Listen for conversations which take place between these voices, low and high.

Here is Andrea Bonatta:

Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The most famous piece inspired by Caprice No. 24 is Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, written in 1934. Rachmaninov was the piano soloist at the premiere in Baltimore in November, 1934. The Philadelphia Orchestra was conducted by Leopold Stokowski. You can hear Rachmaninov’s 1934 recording here.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a musical romp, incorporating all of the fun and virtuosity associated with a theme and variations, but also evoking a wide range of expression. The piece exudes a spirit of humor, from the simultaneously ferocious and comic opening bars, to the sly musical wink at the end. Rachmaninov throws us off guard, first presenting the first variation, a bare bones outline of the theme with the melody stripped away, and then Paganini’s original theme in the violins. In Variation VII the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) chant from the medieval Mass of the Dead emerges (3:29). Composers from Berlioz and Mahler to George Crumb have quoted the Dies Irae, but it seems to have had special significance for Rachmaninov, who returned to it in several compositions.

The famous 18th variation (15:05), which inverts the original theme and transposes it to D-flat major, is one of the piece’s most significant moments. As a musical event, it is set up by the two preceding variations, which gradually take us into a tunnel of darkness and anticipation. Listen carefully to the tension and drama in the inner voices, under the 18 variation’s melody line.

Here is a recording with Nikolai Lugansky and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra:

Coda

There are many other pieces inspired by Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. Violinists from Eugene Ysaye to Nathan Milstein have put their own stamp on the music. In addition, listen to variations by Witold Lutoslawski, Benny GoodmanAndrew Lloyd Webber and a recent jazzy composition by Fazil Say.