Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough

Writings

Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos

One of the first LPs I was given as a small child starting to learn the piano included Rachmaninov’s miraculous 1921 recording of his transcription of Fritz Kreisler’s ‘Liebesleid’. From that moment a door opened for me into a pianistic world where I immediately felt at home. A few years later I was given his recordings of his concertos, long before I heard anyone else play them, and I was genuinely puzzled when I did eventually hear some modern performances: Where was the characteristic rubato of the composer’s playing? Where were the flexible, fluent tempos, always pushing forward with ardour? Where were the teasing, shaded inner-voices forming chromatically-shifting harmonic counterpoint to the melody? And what about the portamento slides in the strings? It was like eating a traditional dish far from home and missing the correct ingredients: What is a pesto sauce without garlic? What is sushi with brown rice?

Concern with correct performance practice does not just apply to the Classical and Baroque periods; it has to do with the very dialect of musical language itself. To take too-slow a tempo, with numerous ritardandos, for the first subject of the first movement of Rachmaninov 2nd concerto means that one of the longest melodies in the repertoire becomes fragmented and earth-bound, robbing the second subject of its natural place of repose and sentiment. To ignore the composer’s Vivacissimo marking at the ‘big tune’ at the end of the 3rd concerto changes a climactic peak of ecstatic energy into an over-long section sounding heavy and emotionally sated. (His clear desire for this pacing is seen not only in the score and in his own recording but in Horowitz’s 1941 performance, a pianist whom the composer considered peerless in this piece). To fail to capture the true improvisatory style of the solo melodic passages, with its agogic accents and subtle balance between ardour and languour, is to fail to communicate the message itself. Josef Lhevinne, Rachmaninov’s friend and classmate at the Moscow Conservatoire, even referred to one such characteristic inflection as the “Russian crescendo” – when the intention to rise to the peak of a phrase is realized by getting softer. And if we are concerned, as we should be, with dots and accents in Schubert why should we not have equal interest in some of Rachmaninov’s characteristic markings: his tenuto-lines indicating a certain kind of rubato, or many of the slurs in the strings suggesting a gentle slide?

It would be of no service to the music and of little artistic interest to try simply to copy the composer’s recorded performances. What is important is to understand and to become fluent in the pianistic language of that time – both of Rachmaninov and of his contemporaries who, though unique individuals, shared many common ‘turns of phrase’ – so that we can then speak or sing our own personal words with an authentic vocabulary and intonation.

I believe this recording is the first since the composer’s own to include the missing wind-parts between figures 74 and 76 in the third movement of the 4th concerto. I had been given some corrected parts via the Philadelphia Orchestra and had brought them to Dallas for inclusion. Andrew Litton, after we’d played them in the first concert, decided to listen again to the Rachmaninov recording and he discovered that the correction was close but not actually correct! He spent a morning on one of the concert-days carefully notating these wonderful extra lines of decorative counterpoint from the composer’s own performance and thus we were able to include them in this recording.

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Stephen Hough