#Classical365: 16 – Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.3

Is Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto flawed from the start? Beautifully lush and breathtakingly virtuosic, why do I find it so difficult to emotionally connect with it?

Now I come to look back on it, this week has been quite challenging.

Actually, screw that. It’s not been challenging, it’s been tough. And annoying. It’s got me angry at times. It’s got me a little teary too. I’ve heard profoundly sad news. I’ve observed confusion, hurt and raw frustration.

I’ve ruminated about it. That ruminating is often seen as a sign of weakness, but this week more than any other I’ve observed how can actually be really valuable. Maybe reflection is a better word than ruminating.  Reflecting offers an opportunity to gather insights. Insights are things I feel I can use someplace else. A deeper understanding of the way I’ve reacted to the tough things this week, gives me a bucket-load of ingredients I can use in other material.

An analogy helps. If you abstain from alcohol you give your liver a rest, your body clears itself of toxins; the longer you abstain. The more sensitive to the effects of alcohol you become when you do then subsequently have a drink, so the more effective the alcohol has on your system and the more aware of those effects you can potentially be.  Being aware of those things you would normally overlook, because they’re part of the everyday, is what I thrive on.

This is all very important stuff because it helps me understand why I experienced the sense of disconnection I experienced listening to Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto at the Barbican tonight has led me to ponder so much.

First, a clarification. The performance was – without doubt – breathtaking. Pianist Federico Colli had stepped in at the last minute to fill the shoes of the billed soloist who was ill. Rachmaninov’s music is demanding in its virtuosity. No surprises then that this is part of Colli’s repertoire this season – he plays it in Amsterdam later this year. Colli achieved something quite remarkable and dazzled everyone around him. The audience adored his panache. The applause was loud, unequivocal and very well-deserved.

So the performer (and his performance) was clearly very, very good. Additionally, I had uncharacteristically, succeeded in getting to the Barbican with sufficient time to spare to park my stuff at the cloakroom and sit quietly in the auditorium before the near capacity audience made for their seats. I’d had time to mentally prepare for the concert (something I’m increasingly regarding as important if I’m to get value from my concert-going experience). All the requirements for a good listening experience were present.

Inside the Barbican Concert Hall

What surprised me then given all of that was how despite my attention, Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto seemed to slip through my fingers. His lush harmonic language is familiar and reassuring. The way his melodic subjects are constructed are masterful because we never think to question them.  The concerto has the composer’s trademark approachable style, one which on this occasion takes us through a variety of effortless key changes. Rachmaninov’s style is so rooted in our popular experience (even if we don’t realise it) that we never think to question it.

The challenge for me started right at the beginning of the work with the opening theme. What I’ve noticed early on in this listening project is how when listening to a work I’ve set myself the challenge to describe the quality of a melody – a writing challenge as much as a listening one. Some works have been straightforward. But the opening of Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto is difficult to pinpoint. Is it brooding? No. Is there pain, regret or longing there? Is that opening melody trying to convey a sense of loneliness? Don’t get me wrong, I like the opening and everything else that follows. It’s just that when I listen I can’t characterise the emotions of the melody. I know it’s not meant to be music for music’s sake – it’s too romantic-sounding to be an exercise. But, being unable to describe that first movement means I can’t identify how I’m responding to it and so makes the journey that follows a rather strange, potentially empty, one. All this despite the fact the work is accessible, rich and in some senses rewarding.

It is as though Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto brings pleasure but doesn’t offer me purpose. For the majority of the time, I want purpose. Pleasure comes from purpose.

The programme notes described the first movement as starting with a ‘palpable sense of anticipation’. (Interestingly, the programme also included pictures of a rough sea which may give a clue to that difficult to describe opening theme – I just didn’t notice it at the time.) The notes also pointed to a sense of redemption at the end of the third movement (as you would expect) of the kind I recognise more in the last movement of Rachmaninov’s second symphony. That sense of completeness is something I recognise instantly in the symphony, but didn’t feel in the concerto. That disparity interests me.

Rachmaninov’s second symphony has the ability of pinning me to my seat almost as soon as the strings start the work. It’s opening has an altogether darker opening, presenting us with a sense that something terrible has already happened with an implicit sense of optimism that things should – if we all work together on this – sort itself out in the end. The second movement scherzo varies the main theme hinting at an explanation of what caused the event which resulted in the loss the symphony opened with. The clarinet solo in the third movement mourns the loss in the most heartbreaking musical eulogy I know of. It can have me in tears even though logically I know I’m quite happy at the time of listening. And the fourth movement is the perfect antidote to everything that has gone before. The emotional range characterised in the music is plainer to see in the second symphony. Does the third piano concerto hide its emotion more? Does Rachmaninov demand we dig a little deeper for it? Or is the music flawed right from the off? I’m not sure.

Later on in the evening I made my way over to the Festival Hall to meet up with university friends in a bar there. They were, as I expected them to be, a little worse for wear having started a good deal earlier in the day than even I had thought. Conversation, I thought, would be a little challenging.

Not so. One of them reminded me about previous occasions when he and I had met. Transported back in my head to Aldeburgh, Snape, Clapham, Catford and various locations at Lancaster, I saw just how things had changed for all of us over the past twenty years. He flagged up the connection between him and the BBC, how his boss had been a journalist on Nationwide and, effectively, acted as a mentor to my university friend in his first job. That was what led the conversation back to writing, how I did it regularly and enjoyed it. That’s when my friend paid me a compliment about my writing which I responded to with the appropriate but sincere ‘thank-you’. Uncharacteristically, I felt at ease accepting the compliment. That in itself is something for a later blog.

And then the most striking thing of all. He inadvertently offered some beautifully sculpted feedback rooted in his own self-confessed pedantry about poor grammar and typos. “Do you read your stuff over before you publish?” he asked. “Rarely,” I replied. “It’s a snapshot,” I went on, “it’s all about the moment. It’s all about improving my skills at writing one draft.” He seemed impressed by that (that wasn’t my intention).

But the exchange reminded me that I love writing, that I do it more regularly than I realise and that I’m pleased some people enjoy it. And more than any of that, I appreciated the company of friends I’ve known for 20 years resolving a week in a way that Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto couldn’t.

I was listening to Federico Colli play Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Barbican. It is also available on Radio 3 for 30 days after the publication date of this post. Try listening to the same work conducted by Tadaaki Otaka featuring John Lill at the keyboard on Serge Rakhmaninov – Rakhmaninov: The Piano Concertos via Spotify.

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