Joyce Yang Plays Rachmaninoff program notes

Sunday, August 15, 2021 , 6:30 PM

Smetana: The Moldau from Má vlast [My Fatherland]

Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 2 in C Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 18

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)

The Moldau from Má vlast [My Fatherland]

Composed: 1874
Instrumentation: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion (triangle, bass drum, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal), harp, and strings

During the course of his career, Smetana developed a musical voice that came to define what would become known as the Czech national style of music. This is not the direction he began in, however. Smetana grew up speaking German and viewed himself as a composer in the Germanic tradition, spending significant time abroad, including a five-year stint in Sweden. When he returned to Prague in 1862, it was a city in the process of redefining itself, with an expanding musical scene and a growing sense of Czech nationalism through what was called the National Revival. It was a fortuitous confluence for Smetana. He began to immerse himself in the Czech language, completing the first of what would be eight operas, all in Czech, in 1863. With the success of these productions, Smetana’s musical style began to become emblematic of Czech music writ large, which Smetana came to realize, writing in 1882, “According to my merits and according to my efforts I am a Czech composer and the creator of the Czech style in the branches of dramatic and symphonic music – exclusively Czech.”

In 1874, Smetana began composing six orchestral tone poems, which would eventually come to be known as Má vlast (My Fatherland), each one based on a myth, history, or place associated with Bohemia, designed to be performed separately. Vltava, known in English as The Moldau, was the second of these and is the best known. In it, Smetana represents the Vltava (or Moldau) River, the longest river in the current Czech Republic at over 250 miles in length. If you have walked the Charles Bridge in Prague, you have stood above its waters. Smetana himself gave the following description of the piece:

The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St. John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad [the 10th century fort depicted in the first tone poem of Má vlast], and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe [the Elbe River].

The brief introduction has the ripples of two intertwining flutes joined by a similarly intertwining clarinet pair, as the streams build to a stately river, represented by the famous Moldau theme. Smetana borrowed this melody from an old Italian song, “La Montovana,” which was also the source for what would become Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah.” The ripples calm to a glide as a country wedding dance enters with a detached duple rhythm. The flute ripples return, accompanying the graceful nighttime dance of mermaids in the upper registers of the muted strings. The main Moldau theme returns and musically flows directly into the stormy rapids, with its rumbling and crashing percussion. On the final trip of the river through Prague, the Moldau theme shifts definitively to a major key and the theme from Smetana’s first poem depicting the Vyšehrad (a historic fort near Prague) appears, here as a kind majestic hymn.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Concerto No. 2 in C Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 18

Composed: 1900-1901
Instrumentation: Solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion (bass drum, crash cymbals), and strings

The 24-year-old Rachmaninoff was walking on air as he traveled to St. Petersburg to attend the rehearsals and premiere of his First Symphony in 1897. He felt very good about his composition and was excited about the new exposure it would afford him. But from the first rehearsal, Rachmaninoff knew that things weren’t right. The playing was atrocious, but more ominously, he began to doubt the worth of the piece itself. The performance turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, and the St. Petersburg audience, already disinclined to give a Moscow composer the benefit of the doubt, responded with slings and arrows. Spiraling into a deep abyss of depression, Rachmaninoff could hardly compose a note for two years. His friends were profoundly concerned, with one even bringing him to meet Leo Tolstoy, whom she had coached with a plan to cheer up the composer. It did not work.

Nearly out of ideas, Rachmaninoff’s friends convinced him to consult with Dr. Nikolai Dahl, an expert in hypnosis. The composer met with Dahl every day for four months in the beginning of 1900 and later described his treatment and its effects:

My relations had told Dr. Dahl that he must at all costs cure me of my apathetic condition and achieve such results that I would again begin to compose. Dahl had asked what manner of composition they desired and had received the answer. “A concerto for piano,” for this I had promised to the people in London and had given up in despair. In consequence I heard repeated, day after day, the same hypnotic formula, as I lay half asleep in an armchair in Dr. Dahl’s consulting room: “You will start to compose a concerto–You will work with the greatest of ease–The composition will be of excellent quality.” Always it was the same without interruption.

Although it may seem impossible to believe, this treatment really helped me. I began to compose at the beginning of the summer. The material grew in volume, and new musical ideas began to well up within me, many more than I needed for my concerto…. I felt that Dr. Dahl’s treatment had strengthened my nervous system to a degree almost miraculous. Out of gratitude, I dedicated my Second Concerto to him.

The tremendous success of his concerto boosted Rachmaninoff’s confidence further, ushering in the most creatively rewarding period of his life. During his lifetime, he served as soloist in well over 100 performances of the piece, which has gone on to become one of the most beloved piano concertos in the repertoire.

As this concert’s soloist, Joyce Yang, has said, the Second Piano Concerto is “filled with gorgeous melodies, one after another.” Listeners who have never heard the work may recognize its music from dozens of films and as thematic material in songs by Frank Sinatra and Celine Dion, among others. It is difficult to believe that this creative inspiration came from a composer who couldn’t compose a note for a two-year duration prior. When listening to the piece, it is easy to become lost in the broad, sweeping lyricism of these melodies and the lush harmonic texture that ebbs and flows so beautifully. What is not as obvious, but equally impressive, is the tight control over the material that the piece exhibits, especially in the first movement. The passionate first theme, so typically Russian, and the gracefully arching second theme do not contrast with one another in the typical manner but instead complement each other motivically, a relationship that Rachmaninoff deftly exploits in one of the most outstanding and moving development sections in the literature. Realizing that a cadenza after the recapitulation would be superfluous and distracting, Rachmaninoff instead recasts the second theme in an ethereal solo horn line that dissolves into a brief but intense coda.

The Adagio, assuming the role of a nocturne with muted strings throughout, is rife with inspiration, beginning with the four-measure introduction that cleverly guides a modulation from C minor to the rather distant key of E major. When the piano’s arpeggios enter, we are led to assume that the meter is 3/4, but when the flute enters with the gentle first melody, we find that the music is actually in 4/4 with a flowing triplet accompaniment. In the middle section, the intensity builds until the piano can no longer be held back and is allowed a far-ranging flight of fancy, a kind of accompanied cadenza, before the flutes pull the pianist back into the fold.

The dramatic finale offers a fitting conclusion to the concerto. Unlike the first movement’s material, the two main themes here are strikingly contrasting: the hard-driving rhythms of the first give way to the broad lyricism of the second. Each of these is developed extensively but separately, leading to a tremendous climactic payoff at the end of the movement, where the two themes are finally combined. With this early 20th-century work, Rachmaninoff has compellingly achieved what so many composers of the early 21st century again strive for: writing music that inspires both the heart and the mind.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi