Gabriela Montero’s New Recording: Rachmaninov and “Ex Patria”

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Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero is reinvigorating an old tradition: She performs all of the standard repertoire, yet she’s equally dedicated to improvising and performing her own compositions. She infuses her concerts with a refreshing sense of excitement and spontaneity, frequently improvising on melodies volunteered by the audience. The subjects of her improvisations have run the gamut from the theme from Harry Potter  and “Happy Birthday” to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, improvisation and a blurring of the line between composer and performer were common. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt were all masters of improvisation. It was only in the twentieth century (with isolated exceptions like Sergei Rachmaninov) that a gulf grew between those who created and interpreted music.

In June, Gabriela Montero released a recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, as well as her own composition, Ex Patria, and three improvisations. On the CD, she’s joined by conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto  and the YOA Orchestra of the Americas, an orchestra made up of 18-30-year-old musicians from countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. Recently, Montero talked about the recording with Richmond Public Radio’s Mike Goldberg. You can hear her thoughtful and dramatic interpretation here:

Ex Patria grew out of the human rights struggle in Montero’s native Venezuela. In a recent interview, she described the piece this way:

Ex Patria I wrote in 2011 to honor the 19,336 victims of homicide that year in Venezuela. Now, to put it in perspective, that number — 19,336 — that was in 2011. Last year, there were 25,000 murders in Venezuela. So, Ex Patria was meant to be a vehicle to express all of this. I wanted people to feel what we feel as a society, a collapsed society. There is no law, there is no justice. Ninety-five percent of crimes go unresolved or unpunished. And I not only wanted to speak of numbers with my audiences but also to write a piece that would emotionally convey the message that they would be attached to. So when they left the concert hall or listened to the recording, it would be in them, it would be an experience that they could identify with. It’s very violent but also very beautiful. And it’s really a photograph of Venezuela in the last 16 years.

The three improvisations which round out this CD draw together elements from the preceding music. Montero describes the first improvisation as Baroque in nature, the second evokes Rachmaninov, and the third is an aural snapshot of Venezuela.

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:

1921 Recording: Rachmaninov Plays Kreisler

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

 

The legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler and Sergei Rachmaninov performed frequently together, luckily leaving behind a few recordings of their collaboration. On one occasion, as the story goes, Kreisler had a memory slip during a performance. Fumbling around the fingerboard and attempting to improvise his way out of the predicament, he inched his way towards the piano, whispering helplessly, “Where are we?” Rachmaninov answered, “In Carnegie Hall.”

As a tribute to their friendship, Rachmaninov created piano arrangements of three of Kreisler’s violin miniatures, including Liebesleid (“Love’s Sorrow”), and Liebesfreud (“Love’s Joy”). Kreisler’s original compositions are charming slices of pre-war Vienna (listen here). In Rachmaninov’s hands they become thrilling new music…variations on the original themes, infused with Rachmaninov’s distinct sound and spirit.

Here is Rachmaninov’s 1921 recording of Liebesleid. Listen for all of the unexpected harmonic twists and turns and the sparkling virtuosity of the fast passages. One of my favorite moments comes towards the end, with the sudden, darkly expressive chord at 3:36 and the embellishments which follow (3:44).

Here is Rachmaninov’s recording of Liebesfreud from 1925. Kreisler’s original piece is fairly straightforward and melodic. Rachmaninov turns it into a tour de force of motivic development:

La Folia’s Endless Possibilities

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Good composers borrow. Great ones steal.

-Igor Stravinsky

La Folia, the ancient theme/chord progression which originated in Portuguese dance music as early as 1577, was borrowed (and stolen) by composers throughout the Baroque era. VivaldiScarlattiHandel, and Jean-Baptiste Lully were among the composers who took advantage of the theme’s endlessly rich musical possibilities. Later composers also paid homage to La Folia. It surfaces briefly at this moment in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Franz Liszt included it in his La Rhapsodie espagnole. Even contemporary Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (of “diamond commercial” fame) has written his own La Folia variations for marimba and strings.

One of the most famous Baroque versions of La Folia was Arcangelo Corelli’s. In a 2013 Listeners’ Club post we explored a few contrasting performances of this music. Shinichi Suzuki’s La Folia in the opening of Suzuki Violin Book 6 is based loosely on Corelli’s piece.

Recently, I ran across another great La Folia performed by Spanish viola da gamba player Jordi Savall. No one is sure who wrote this piece. It is part of a collection of now anonymous music called Flores de Música (“Musical Flowers”), compiled by Spanish organist and composer Antonio Martín y Coll (died c. 1734). The viola da gamba is a stringed instrument which first appeared in Spain in the mid to late fifteenth century. You’ll notice a distinctly Spanish flavor in the instrumentation (castanets and the wood of the bow hitting the strings) and rhythm (1:04, for example). Listen closely to the way the guitar’s dance-like rhythm livens things up at 5:17.

At their best, theme and variations are about fun-loving virtuosity and a wide range of expression and drama. These aspects are on full display here:

Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli

Now, let’s hear Sergei Rachmaninov’s 1931 Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. Throughout twenty ferocious variations and a coda, the La Folia theme enters bold and adventurous new territory. Following the opening statement of the theme, the music begins quickly to move far afield harmonically. There’s a spirit of the “trickster” here as we’re thrown sudden curveballs (1:08). At the same time, it’s easy to sense something ominous and slightly gloomy under the surface. At moments we get the faintest glimpse of the outlines of the Dies Irae (the Latin “Day of Wrath” chant) which shows up in so much of Rachmaninov’s music. Listen for the ghoulish low notes around the 4:44 mark. As the final, solemn chord dies away, ghosts evaporate.

This work is dedicated to the violinist Fritz Kreisler, with whom Rachmaninov performed occasionally. Rachmaninov never recorded this piece. In a letter dated December 21, 1931 he lamented:

I’ve played the Variations about fifteen times, but of these fifteen performances only one was good. The others were sloppy. I can’t play my own compositions! And it’s so boring! Not once have I played these all in continuity. I was guided by the coughing of the audience. Whenever the coughing would increase, I would skip the next variation. Whenever there was no coughing, I would play them in proper order. In one concert, I don’t remember where – some small town – the coughing was so violent that I played only ten variations (out of 20). My best record was set in New York, where I played 18 variations. However, I hope that you will play all of them, and won’t “cough”.

You won’t hear any coughing or miss any skipped variations in Hélène Grimaud’s excellent 2001 recording: