The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40

About the Work

Sergei Rachmaninoff Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
© Richard Freed

Rachmaninoff made the first sketches for the last of his four concertos as early as 1917, when he was still in Russia, but did not get round to the actual composing of the work until 1926, by which time he was living in the United States and Switzerland; he introduced it on March 18, 1927, as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting. In 1941 the composer revised the score considerably, and then made the first recording of the work, again with the Philadelphians but with Eugene Ormandy conducting. In the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of the Fourth Concerto, on September 20-23, 1983, the soloist was Eugene Istomin and the conductor and Mstislav Rostropovich; in the most recent one, on February 7, 2002, Vandan Mamikonian was the soloist and Leonard Slatkin conducted.

In addition to the solo piano, the score of the 1941 version, which is used in the present concerts, calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, and strings. Duration, 25 minutes.

When Rachmaninoff came to the United States in 1918, he concentrated on performing in order to reattain the financial solvency he had lost in the Russian Revolution. He resigned himself to the need to support himself as a performer and setting aside the creative work which he had always regarded as more important. He found himself in great demand as both pianist and conductor, having toured the U.S. earlier in both capacities and having twice been offered the conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the measure of independence he regained on the concert stage and in the recital room enabled him, after eight years, to resume composing. The Fourth Concerto, composed in 1926, was his first new composition since the completion of the Op. 39 Études tableaux nine years earlier, and must have come as a surprise to those who thought his composing days had ended in 1917.

With the Fourth Concerto Rachmaninoff not only showed that he had not written himself out, but also initiated a remarkable sequence of works as impressive for their undimmed vitality as for their rich maturity. In the same Philadelphia concerts in which he introduced this work Stokowski conducted also the premiere of the Three Russian Songs,for chorus and orchestra; five years later came the Variations on a Theme of Corelli, for piano solo; two years after that, the last of the works for piano and orchestra, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; and then the last works for orchestra alone: the Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances. (All of these orchestral works were written for and introduced by the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Stokowski or, in the case of the valedictory Symphonic Dances, Eugene Ormandy.) When Rachmaninoff had completed all of these scores he returned to the Fourth Concerto, touching up the orchestration in the first two movements and substantially rewriting the finale.
This final concerto has remained to a degree the Cinderella among Rachmaninoff's concerted works. It is in some respects quite different from its three more familiar predecessors, but no less attractive for those differences, which might be said to constitute a striking demonstration that in resuming his creative effort Rachmaninoff was determined to avoid repeating himself or giving the slightest indication of being content simply to continue where he had left off--;a phrase that might well have been ready for use in describing a work he had sketched back in 1917. By 1926, when he returned to those sketches, Rachmaninoff was in his fifties and had been absoring a new culture, a new environment and new musical styles. While his individuality is never in question, his response to these stimuli is apparent in the music with which he resumed his creative role following that long hiatus.

In particular, the Fourth Concerto shows that Rachmaninoff, so strongly rooted in the imposing traditions of his own origins, was not untouched by his exposure to American jazz. The way he responded to that influence was of course different from the way such figures as Ravel and Milhaud did, but it is definitely apparent. Rachmaninoff had an open mind and open ears. He admired Art Tatum and other jazz pianists, and even the "quasi-jazz" improvisations of Eddy Duchin. He had been among the eminent musicians present at the premiere of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, which lit fires under most of them, by the time Gershwin brought out his full-scale Concerto in F at the end of the following year Rachmaninoff had completed his own Fourth.

None of this background should suggest that Rachmaninoff was in any sense an imitator or simply going along with what was then a very evident trend. Like countless illustrious composers in all periods, he absorbed what he could profitably use from various sources and filtered such influences through his own personality. The Fourth Concerto is clearly music of its time, and if it lacks the sumptuousness of his earlier works, it may be said to mark a new freedom, a new flexibility, a higher level of individuality. There is also in this score a new mastery in the use of the orchestra on the part of a composer whose skill in this area had already been demonstrated on an exceptional level for years.

The element of nostalgia, felt in many of Rachmaninoff's works, is projected here with singular poignancy, but in terms somewhat different from his earlier language. It is leaner, more concise, more concentrated. To be sure, the first movement contains two of those broad, yearing themes in which his particular brand of lyricism is unmistakable. The development section is filled with stormy drama; in it we encounter the inevitable citation of the Dies irae, the ancient chant for the dead that so obsessed Rachmaninoff that he managed to quote it or allude to it in virtually all of his major works. In this case it is not a direct quotation, but a clearly recognizable variant in the solo part.

The slow movement, with its blues-like theme, especially suggests parallels with Gershwin, but it is here that we have one of the work's most intense episodes of autobiography. In the impassioned middle section is a subtle reminiscence of a two-note motif Rachmaninoff had used in his two most popular concertos--;in the very opening of the Second and as part of the basic pattern of the principal theme in the first movement of the Third. This apparent reference to "the things that matter and now are over" (a phrase Rachmaninoff used frequently in recalling his earlier life) is conspicuously different from the composer's earlier expressions of deepfelt emotion, and is perhaps the strongest response to the new American influence; indeed, Eugene Istomin, who loved this work and introduced it into the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in 1983, characterized this section as a sort of torch song.

The vivacious finale follows without pause. If the rhythmic activity and exciting colors here seem to substitute for Rachmaninoff's customary melodic richness, this very effect only serves to heighten the impact with which the work's opening phrases are summoned back fleetingly toward the end.

Rachmaninoff dedicated his Fourth Concerto to his compatriot and friend Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951), a composer whom he regarded as being seriously underappreciated. Although their personal views differed considerably on the directions music was taking between the two World Wars, Rachmaninoff in 1935 underwrote the publication of the book in which Medtner presented his own views on that subject, The Muse and Fashion.