Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Symphony Preview: The SLSO deals a pair of threes Friday and Saturday, April 17 and 18, 2015

This weekend's St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concerts offer a pair of threes: Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 3" and Scriabin's "Symphony No. 3" ("The Divine Poem"). Both were written during the first decade of the 20th century when their creators were in their thirties. Both composers were Russian Romantics who were prodigious pianists. And both made significant contributions to the literature for both piano and orchestra.

Aleksandr Scriabin
(They both also experienced synaesthesia—the association of specific colors with certain musical keys—but that's another story.)

The personalities, however, of Serge Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Aleksandr Scriabin (1872-1915) were radically different, even though they were close friends from their days at the Moscow Conservatory. Rachmaninoff, famously, was so stung by the harsh criticism of his "Symphony No. 1" that he spiraled into a depression that was cured only after extensive hypnotherapy. Scriabin, on the other hand, was a raging egomaniac unacquainted with self-doubt. Rachmaninoff was a stable family man. Scriabin was an eccentric who fathered illegitimate children while separated from his wife. Rachmaninoff was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church with strong moral beliefs. Scriabin was a Theosophy-addled mystic who began to see himself as divine.

Basically, Rachmaninoff was sane while Scriabin, as Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes, "was, by any measure, quite mad."

How mad? Well, he became convinced that he could levitate and walk on water, for one thing. "I am the apotheosis of world creation," he said of himself. "I am the aim of aims, the end of ends." And at the time of his death in 1915 at the age of 43 (brought on by septicemia stemming from a sore on his upper lip), Scriabin was working on a "Universe Symphony". It would be a multi-media experience that would be performed in the Himalayas and would result in "a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world." "The universe," as Scriabin's biographer Faubion Bowers wrote, "would be completely destroyed by it, and mankind plunged into the holocaust of finality." All we have are sketches of the first part, titled "Mysterium". Which might be just as well.

The intent behind the "Symphony No. 3," while less apocalyptic, was certainly ambitious. "The Divine Poem," ran a note presumably written by Scriabin and distributed at the work's 1905 Moscow premiere, "represents the evolution of the human spirit, which, freed from the legends and mysteries of the past that it has surmounted and overthrown, passes through pantheism and achieves a joyful and exhilarating affirmation of its liberty and its unity with the universe."

"The Divine Poem," writes Philip Huscher in his program notes for a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance from this January, "is the longest work Scriabin wrote. It is scored for a very large orchestra, handled with the care and imagination of a much more experienced orchestrator. It is also the first of his works to be called a poem, signaling the shift from abstract symphony to a new, unnameable [sic] kind of music."

The symphony consists of a short introduction and three movements, all played without pause and running around fifty minutes. Scriabin titled the movements "Struggles," "Delights," and "Divine Play." Mr. Schiavo has a nicely detailed analysis of it in his notes for the SLSO program as does Mr. Huscher in his notes for the CSO. The former is heavier on musical detail while the latter includes fascinating quotes by the composer (Scriabin found few subjects more worthy of comment than Scriabin). They're both worth reading.

Although Scriabin died young, his compositions—especially his solo piano works—anticipated the twentieth century's near-total collapse of conventional notions of harmony (at least among "classical" composers) in ways that those of his longer-lived friend did not. He did it, however, in ways that were completely idiosyncratic, creating his own personal notions of harmony, including his famous "Mystic chord"—C, F♯, B♭, E, A, D. 

That failed to endear him to the serialists and others looking for a more rational and mathematical system.  "The strength of Alexander [sic] Scriabin," wrote Vladimir Horowitz for a 1956 recording of his sonatas, "…was unashamed Byronic romanticism.  It is one of those peculiar ironies that this strength in an earlier era may have turned out in retrospect to be his weakness in the age in which we live.  Today, in a more material age, unfortunately the tendency is to regard romanticism in any form with indulgent tolerance."

By the time Rachmaninoff got around to writing his "Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor," Op. 30, in 1909 he had fully recovered from the crippling depression brought on by the failure of his "Symphony No. 1" over a decade earlier and had achieved international recognition as both a virtuoso pianist and a composer. He wrote the concerto at his family's country estate, Ivanovka, in the summer of 1909 for a concert tour of the USA. The concerto's first two performances took place that November with the New York Symphony Society conducted by Walter Damrosch (the premiere) and Gustav Mahler (several weeks later).

Rachmaninoff in 1900
The Rachmaninoff Third is the K2 of piano concerti. Fiercely difficult, it's a reminder of what a prodigious pianist Rachmaninoff was. For many years after its premiere, its only real advocate was the composer himself. Even the virtuoso to whom the piece is dedicated, Josef Hofmann, never attempted to perform it in public. It wasn't until the great Vladimir Horowitz recorded it in 1930 and began to actively promote it that it started to rise in popularity. These days it's so much a part of the standard repertoire that two of the finalists in the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (Fei-Fei Dong and Sean Chen) picked it for their final-round concerts.

Still, it's not the sort of thing a pianist takes on lightly. Our soloist this weekend, Macedonian pianist Simon Trpcheski, is no stranger to the work, having recorded it for the Avie label with this weekend's guest conductor, Vasily Petrenko (who conducted a very impressive Rachmaninoff "Isle of the Dead" here in October, 2011). It also can't hurt that the orchestra played the work as recently as May of 2012 (under Peter Oundjian, with Stephen Hough as the keyboard).

An interesting local note: when the concerto had its St. Louis premiere on January 27, 1928, the soloist was Horowitz (the "young Russian pianist," to quote Post-Dispatch critic Thomas B. Sherman). The pianist had arrived in the USA just two weeks previously and had already created a sensation with the New York Philharmonic under Sir Thomas Beecham. Mr. Sherman loved Horowitz ("a powerful tone and a sparkling and expertly controlled technique") but hated the concerto, calling it "as dull a thing as the noted Muscovite expatriate has ever done". History has rather overruled him that one.

The essentials: Vasily Petrenko conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with pianist Simon Trpcheski in Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor" and Scriabin's Symphony No. 3, "Le Poème divin," on Friday and Saturday, April 17 and 18, at 8 p.m. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. For more information:

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