First Concertos of Russian Masters

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
James Conlon, Conductor
Lise de la Salle, Piano
Olga Kern, Piano
Joyce Yang, Piano
Chris Martin, Trumpet

Wednesday, August 5, 2009
4:30 PM
Donor Gates Open
5:00 PM
Public Gates Open
8:00 PM
Concert Starts
Reserved $25
Lawn $10


Rapturous Russia

Shostakovich:   Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 35
Prokofiev:         Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Op. 10
Rachmaninoff:   Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1

Program Notes

Concerto for Piano, Strings and Trumpet in C Minor, Op. 35

Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the finest young pianists of the new Soviet state, as well as an extraordinary and provocative composer. Confirmation of his keyboard prowess came with his selection to compete in the First Chopin Competition in 1927. On February 1, Shostakovich excitedly reported back home that he had emerged as a popular choice, along with Lev Oborin, for top honors. Unfortunately, the judges saw matters otherwise. They indeed awarded first prize to Oberin, but only a diploma to Shostakovich. The disappointed pianist took heart in the public’s reaction: “The decision regarding the other prizes bewildered the audience. Malishevsky, who read out the order of prizes, even forgot to mention my name. In the audience cries of ‘Shostakovich, Shostakovich’ were heard . . . Malishevsky then read out my name, and the audience gave me a great ovation—rather demonstratively at that.”

After the competition, he traveled to Berlin for a solo concert and negotiations with agents over possible tours. Shostakovich had only begun to achieve notoriety as a composer with the auspicious premiere of his Symphony No. 1, given by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Nikolai Malko the previous year. Years passed before another composition attracted as much attention, and then with quite contrary results. For the immediate future, performing offered the most promising avenue for his musical career. Many (apparently including the Chopin judges) found his tone quality and interpretations idiosyncratic; others relished this individuality.

One admirer of his keyboard style was fellow pianist Nathan Perelman, who heard Shostakovich perform immediately before the Chopin Competition. Perelman recalled distinctly that he “emphasized the linear aspect of music and was very precise in all the details of performance. He used little rubato in his playing, and it lacked extreme dynamic contrasts. It was an ‘anti-sentimental’ approach to playing which showed incredible clarity of thought. You could say his playing was very modern; at the time we accepted it and took it to our hearts.”

Arnold Ferkelman, a cellist who performed with Shostakovich during the 1930s, mentioned other details: “he liked playing quickly and loudly, and he took incredibly fast tempi . . . His playing was on the dry side, but on the other hand he played very loudly, no doubt because of his great force of temperament.” His keyboard performances dwindled during the late-40s and 50s. Eventually, a weakening in his right arm made playing impossible. Shostakovich made a final appearance as pianist on February 23, 1964, with the Borodin Quartet in his piano quintet.

Three decades earlier, Shostakovich had designed the Concerto for Piano, Strings and Trumpet in C Minor, Op. 35, to showcase his unique keyboard talents. This diverting and occasionally frivolous work written between March and July 1932 resembles very little his other recent compositions. Its immediate predecessor—the 24 preludes for solo piano—magnificently demonstrate breadth of imagination and intellectual depth. The graphic realism and harsh dissonance of another contemporary composition, the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (which, however, was not produced until 1934), flaunt his untamed modernity.

Shostakovich characterized the concerto as “heroic, spirited and joyful.” Less generous critics described its surface levity with derogatory phrases like “circus music.” The composer wielded pastiche and parody, skills undoubtedly learned from years of accompanying silent movies, as weapons against the Romantic piano-concerto tradition. His “anti-Romantic” instrumentation—two solo instruments (piano and trumpet) accompanied by a string ensemble—evokes the Baroque concerto grosso or Classical sinfonia concertante. Shostakovich went so far as to position the trumpet beside the piano in all his own performances.

The score indicates no breaks between movements. Shostakovich begins the Allegro moderato with a short piano-trumpet fanfare. The piano continues with a “serious” contrapuntal theme in minor, which the strings repeat. Next comes a raucous transition, then the sharply articulated second theme. Strings accompany with spiccato (bouncy and detached) bowing and glissandos. The trumpet plays its first thematic material. One gradually detects stereotyped motives from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (the opening theme closely resembles the “Appassionata” sonata) by the end of this sonata-allegro movement.

Shostakovich conveys more sincere emotion in the Lento, which is often described as a melancholy waltz. This movement subdivides into three parts. Solo keyboard writing abounds in the lyrical first and passionate second sections, then the muted trumpet restates the opening melody. The brief Moderato offers a rhapsodic instrumental recitative.

The finale rollicks along with burlesque humor, due in large part to the trumpet’s increased participation. This movement includes the only cadenzas in this concerto. Victor Ilyich Seroff explained that Shostakovich never wanted these virtuosic segments, but another pianist insisted on their inclusion. The composer replied: “Listen, this is not a concerto like one of Tchaikovsky’s or Rachmaninoff’s, with runs all over the instrument to show you can play scales. This is a bird of a different feather.” He eventually relented, but not without a final humorous twist: he borrowed a theme from Beethoven’s Rondo a capriccio (“Rage over the Lost Penny”) in G Major, Op. 129. The trumpet trades fanfares with short piano flourishes before the final cadence.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1

The teenaged Sergei Rachmaninoff ran full throttle on a fast track toward success as a pianist and composer. Private keyboard study under the highly disciplined guidance of Nikolai Zverev and harmony lessons from Nikolai Ladukhin had prepared the talented but lazy boy for the rigorous Moscow Conservatory curriculum. Barely 13 years old, Rachmaninoff arranged Tchaikovsky’s new “Manfred” Symphony for four-hand piano. His first original composition—a scherzo for orchestra—followed a few months later. Various solo piano pieces, songs, a draft for an opera based on Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame and an astonishing score of 5+ on the conservatory’s music theory examination verify his accelerating development.

Rachmaninoff moved out of Zverev’s residence in 1889, claiming a need for quieter surroundings in order to compose. Fellow student Matvei Pressman remembered that “Zverev was so upset that he almost fainted. He considered that he had been deeply hurt, and none of Rachmaninoff’s reasoning could change his mind.” The wounds from this angry separation took many years to heal. Meanwhile, the newly independent musician moved into the Moscow home of his cousins, the Satins. His first major undertaking, begun in November 1889, was a piano concerto in C minor. Though he eventually abandoned the heavily edited sketches, Rachmaninoff gained invaluable experience that ensured success for his next attempt in the form—the Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1.

Sketches for the first movement bear the date June 8, 1890, during what became the first of many annual summer retreats at the Satins’ countryside property, Ivanovka. Another project—a commissioned four-hand piano arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty—and self-professed idleness soon diverted his attention from the concerto. After another school year and his graduation in piano from the conservatory, Rachmaninoff resumed work on the concerto at Ivanovka in July 1891. One intense creative flourish brought the work’s rapid completion on July 6. “I wrote down and orchestrated the last two movements in two-and-a-half days,” the exhausted composer wrote Mikhail Slonov two weeks later. “You can imagine what a job that was! I wrote from 5 o’clock in the morning until 8 o’clock in the evening, so I was terribly tired when I finished the work.”

The world premiere of the Piano Concerto No. 1 (first movement only) took place at a concert of student works at the Moscow Conservatory on March 17, 1892. There was little time to rest on the laurels of this triumphant event, for days later the faculty distributed the required libretto for the composition examination: Aleko, based on Pushkin’s poem Tsygany. Rachmaninoff cloistered himself away for the next few weeks, emerging on April 13 with a completed opera score. The examining committee again awarded him a 5+, his estranged teacher Zverev proudly presented him with a gold watch, and the conservatory bestowed on him the Great Gold Medal, previously awarded to only two students.

Liberated from formal studies, Rachmaninoff reflected upon his recently completed concerto and found it imperfect, mainly in terms of its excessively thick orchestration and piano writing. He refused many invitations to perform the work over the next few years, considering the concerto “frightful in its present form.” Rachmaninoff contemplated a revision of the score in 1908, but waited another nine years before embarking on a major reworking. Normally he required quiet and solitude for such work, but this revision took place amid the gunfire of the October Revolution of 1917. The new version retained the original thematic material, minus a few minor segments, but contained significant modifications to the orchestration, including the substitution of a bass trombone for the tuba and the addition of triangle and cymbals in the finale.

Rachmaninoff gained confidence in his refurbished score, introducing the revised concerto at a 1919 concert in New York City. Inexplicably, the audience failed to respond to this music, perhaps because the more mature second and third concertos already had become regular concert fare. The Piano Concerto No. 1 begins with a riveting introduction: the winds repeat a single pitch (F-sharp) for two measures before the piano’s bravura entrance. Following this commanding display of virtuosity, the violins introduce a soft, lyrical melody. The Presto movement assumes monumental dimensions, but nowhere is this expansiveness more evident than in its immense solo cadenza. The Andante, a delicate nocturne for piano and orchestra, required very little modification, but Rachmaninoff greatly improved the finale by creating a more dramatic opening and streamlining the structure. This final version, which he recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy in 1939 and 1940, continued to please its composer. “I have rewritten my first concerto; it is really good now,” Rachmaninoff later told Alfred Swan. “All the youthful freshness is there, and yet it plays itself so much more easily.”

—Program notes © Todd E. Sullivan 2009

Park Details

Meet Lise de la Salle, Olga Kern and Joyce Yang after their performance for a signing outside Ravinia Gifts, located in front of the Dining Pavilion.

Signings are at the discretion of the artist and are subject to change. Purchase of recorded merchandise does not guarantee signature.