One must be an inventor to read well.
There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sergei Rachmaninoff was perhaps the most complete musician of the 20th century. He towered as composer, conductor and pianist, and in him, all three disciplines were intimately intertwined.
One of the many paradoxes of Rachmaninoff’s genius is that he is most beloved for his lyric inspirations – timeless, never-ending melodies that linger in the ears and heart. Paradoxical because he was one of the greatest contrapuntal masters of the 20th century. He writes layers upon layers of melody and eachlayer is a world unto itself.
There have been many great melodists, from Mozart to Chopin, Verdi to Gershwin, but in all of these composers’ works, there is basically a melody with a simple accompaniment. Rachmaninoff’s genius lay in his ability to combine layer upon layer of melody while giving the listener a sense of a single principle line with a complex inner life.
This applies to his orchestral works, piano works, vocal works, chamber works – everything. But it also applies to his piano playing. The inner melodies, from the bass-line all the way on up, teem with life. The emotional and intellectual integrity of the inner part compares perhaps only with the genius of Glenn Gould or Vladimir Horowitz. Yet what’s striking is that all of this comes off as subliminal, peripheral. In the moment of performing – and this applies to all the great pianists – you feel his mind and soul centered in the melody. The richness of inner complexities does not come at the cost of sacrificing the principle melody – the most important line and the place where most of the audience’s attention is centered.
The next thing you notice is the absolute command of architecture. He has very strong points of view and it’s often easy to disagree with them, but the strength and inner logic of the design overwhelms.
Another striking element of Rachmaninoff’s playing is the grand scope of the dynamic range. His piano begins where most pianists’ forte stops. Yet it SOUNDS piano and IS piano! And this brings us back to an important point about dynamics and energy – dynamics are only indirectly related to decibels of sound; they’re related to relative decibels of sound, but more importantly, they’re defined to the listener’s ear by the relative level of the performer’s energy and the quality of that energy. A piano can sound forte, for instance, if it’s forced. Simply stated, dynamics represent mood, color and relative energy levels.
One’s energy level changes from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, and the performer must be sensitive to this and counterbalance it when necessary, without forcing. Rachmaninoff plays piano with a big sound but a calm mind and relatively relaxed joints, so the effect is piano. Yet underneath the melody, there are seemingly infinite layers of dynamics, which lends his accompaniments a rich, orchestral effect.
Technically speaking, Rachmaninoff plays the melody from his forearm or upper arm. This immediately gives him effortless access to an enormous amount of strength unattainable from the fingers alone. In general, he plays ppp melodies as well as fff chordal masses all from the arm with its peculiar, sustained, penetrating quality. The inner voices he assigns to the forearm, hand or fingers, according to the color desired.
This general approach to technique is typical of most of the great pianists of the golden age – it is one of many reasons they were able to achieve such differentiation of sound and emotion. Modern techniques are based either solely on finger-strength or on a finger-hand combination that leaves the upper arm and forearm floating effortlessly in the air. Great economy of motion but lack of strength and monotony of color result. How can the fingers and hands alone create all the colors of the orchestra! That’s a recipe either for tendonitis, resulting from over-working the smaller muscles (to little sonic effect), or a black-and-white contained approach to piano requiring only a small palette of colors produced with a petite dynamic range.
A word on Rachmaninoff’s forte chordal passages. Rachmaninoff has a way of packaging chordal passages like few pianists in history; he phrases and shapes them so compactly and richly! They resonate strength. He seems to prefer a somewhat edged sound in forte and fortissimo passages, which he achieves by slightly holding the elbow. It’s what I call a wooden underpinning. It’s quite similar to the tonal ideal that Artur Rubinstein employs in forte chordal passages.
(Interestingly, while Rubinstein claimed not to be a fan of Rachmaninoff’s “sentimental” music, he adored Rachmaninoff the pianist and held his “golden tone” as his ideal.)
Rachmaninoff’s singing “wooden” sound in forte is the closest he comes to using percussion in his playing. This is perhaps part of the nobility of his approach and general character. The sound sometimes has an edge but is never forced, always rounded. The irony here is that Rachmaninoff the orchestrator uses the percussion section to maximum effect. In such an orchestrally-minded musician, why did he deny the piano of some of its most striking, innate NATURAL tone colors? Who is the real Rachmaninoff?
When I listen to Rachmaninoff, I occasionally long for timpani here, a snair-drum undercurrent there, bells and chimes . . . This negation of percussive effect at the piano strikes me as odd and somehow unfulfilling.
(Rachmaninoff, in his later years, toured the United States extensively, and remained there from 1918 until his death.)
My way of understanding this paradox is through my own experience as a composer and conductor, but also through my experience with languages. When I first learned to speak Spanish as a teenager, I discovered that a new personality was streaming out of me through my newly acquired language. Language and culture are so powerfully intertwined that they often dictate thought and personality. Gradually this is overcome, but never completely. I went through the same experiences as I acquired fluency in French, Italian and Korean. What baffles the mind is having a conversation with another bi- or multi-lingual speaker, switching between languages – you’ll notice how your feelings and thoughts about the subject subtly shift.
So it is with Rachmaninoff – Rachmaninoff the composer is different from Rachmaninoff the conductor is different from Rachmaninoff the pianist. Together they give a more accurate account of the completeness of Rachmaninoff the musician. As a conductor, he was less developed, more inhibited and conservative. As a pianist, he reached the highest heights, but as a composer, he came closest to meeting his true self and achieving his artistic potential.
In the practice room, Rachmaninoff speaks to me in three languages.