Interpreting Their Own Music – Sergei Rachmaninoff

Over the 20th century musical identities split and departed, creating new separated species of artists: the composer and the interpreter. A process of specialisation divided music-making between different people: a composer writes and an instrumentalist plays. This series focuses on several exceptions in the 20th century: composers who played and performed their own music.

Part 3: Sergei Rachmaninoff

There is hardly any musician in the 20th century who is so unanimously admired as an instrumentalist, while at the same time so much disputed as a composer, such as Sergei Rachmaninoff.
He was born in 1872, into the peak of Russian Romanticism, when Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Anton Rubinstein and others, were reaching the height of their creativity. Tchaikovsky was without doubt Rachmaninoff’s idol as a composer, while Rubinstein his idol pianist. It is to this Russian romantic tradition with which he identified himself for his entire life.

On the contrary, composers of the same generation, such as Scriabin, tried to overcome these traditions and invent a new musical language, choosing the modern path of those who were influenced by the radical changes of the first half of the 20th century.
These radical political events sent Rachmaninoff into exile in 1917, which changed his life dramatically. He stayed in exile for the rest of his life and during the next 26 years, until his death in 1943, composed only six new works. Nevertheless, in those years his career as a pianist was shining bright- he was one of the most successful and loved pianists of his time.

Though as a composer he was barely acknowledged by his fellow composers. Especially the modernists in Schoenberg’s circles, did not value his compositions what so ever.
The philosopher and musician Theodor W. Adorno said about one of Rachmaninoff’s works: „[…] for infantil grown ups“. Even nowadays, personas such as the pianist Alfred Brendel express a very similar opinion, naming Rachmaninoff’s work: „music for teenagers“.
There are definitely Sturm und Drang moments in his compositions, accumulating in frequent ecstatic climaxes. This kind of expressiveness is for some a source of joy and empathy, while for others a superficial, even a cheesy experience. Easy to miss, are his colourful instrumentations, refined structures and original harmonic changes.

Contrary to what one might expect, listening to Rachmaninoff’s piano playing, a rather sober and fine interpretation is discovered. Rachmaninoff never sacrificed brilliance or clarity for stormy expression. Aside his effortless virtuosity and “golden tone” (as Artur Rubinstein once said), the only escapade he truly allows himself is the constant use of Rubato. Not surprising, that Vladimir Horowitz admired him and was quoted saying, that Rachmaninoff “was the musical God of my youth”.

Interesting to notice, that the tempi he chooses, especially in the recordings of his Piano Concertos made towards his death, are often much faster than the metronome marks printed in his scores. Already in 1902, the famous conductor Willlem Mengelberg notated corrections of the original metronome markings into his score, and used these in performances where Rachmaninoff himself played the solo piano part.

It was also Artur Rubinstein who compared Rachmaninoff to great violinist Fritz Kreisler, another member of the “golden tone”and Rubato club: