Friday, November 6, 2015

Canellakis & Brown: The Adventure Continues, Rachmaninoff Edition

Michael Brown & Nicholas Canellakis
If you're just tuning in to these posts about the Canellakis-Brown Duo's performance Saturday night at 8:00 at Market Square Church, I've also written about the first half of the program in this earlier post. Since I didn't want to turn that one into a marathon, I kept the Rachmaninoff Sonata that's on the second half of the program for... well, I guess last – second, anyway.

It's a good year for lovers of Russian music in Harrisburg – there was Rachmaninoff's rarely heard 1st Piano Sonata and Scriabin's Op. 11 Preludes with Peter Orth last month (read about that program of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff here), Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto in the opening concert of the season with the Harrisburg Symphony, continuing in January with Market Square Concerts' Artist Director and Harrisburg Symphony's Concertmaster, Peter Sirotin, playing the Glazunov Violin Concerto, with Stravinsky's Petrushka in February, Zuill Bailley returning in March for Shostakovich's 1st Cello Concerto, and to end the season in May, an all-Russian program with Shostakovich's 1st Symphony, Kabalevsky's suite “The Comedians,” and Ann Schein returning for Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto!

When I was teaching a course in “Russian and East European Art and Folk Music with a Historical and Cultural Perspective” (or “Russian Music” as it appeared in the curriculum) back in the late-1970s, a guest of the University of Connecticut's Slavic Center was one of the foremost anthropologists of the then Soviet Union and I asked her the question I most often get asked by Americans about Russian music: “Why is Russian music so sad?” thinking “finally, I can ask a real Russian this question!” I awaited the definitive answer like someone hoping for the latest news from the Kardashians.

She thought a while and said, “I don't really know – perhaps it's the long winters?”

Having spent three years of my life living in Rochester NY where locals say they have two seasons, Winter and the 4th of July, this, oddly enough, resonated with me.

Of course, if you figure how much time you have to spend indoors during a Russian winter between the cold and the snow and how you have to entertain yourself during that time, no wonder they write long gloomy novels and sad or wistful melodies, almost exclusively in dark minor keys with those tonal inflections that make it sound “uniquely Russian” with a soulfulness that examines what's left after the wind has stripped away everything else.

Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Hsin-Bei Lee, piano: Rachmaninoff Sonata in G Minor for Cello & Piano – Andante

The slow movement of Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata is a case-in-point even if the very opening of the first movement may seem more like someone facing up to an impending winter. (Not that I want to point out that, despite summer-like temperatures at the beginning of November, winter, whatever it may bring, is lurking just around some not-too-distant corner...)

When we think of Rachmaninoff the composer, we see a man whose face looks like it was carved in granite (Stravinsky famously described him as a six-and-a-half-foot scowl). One of the little musical motives that keeps cropping up in so many of his pieces is the infamous Dies irae from the Latin Mass for the Dead, the “Day of Judgment.” He wrote a symphonic poem called “The Isle of the Dead.” I mean, this man must have been a laugh-riot to hang out with.

The one thing that saddens me even more is realizing that Nick Canellakis will never be able to film one of his conversations with Sergei Rachmaninoff.

But keep in mind that we're lucky to have this music at all, following the nuclear winter of his 1st Symphony's disastrous premiere when he had recently graduated from the conservatory. The dramatic failure of this work which he'd spent so much time and love on sent him into a period of depression – understandably, he was reluctant to compose anything – and then he went to see one of those new-fangled psychiatrists, Nikolai Dahl, who, through some imaginative and supportive therapy that reportedly included a bit of confidence-building hypnosis, managed to bring him out of these creative doldrums to compose his 2nd Piano Concerto which became one of those Greatest Hits. Its melodies even became the stuff of pop songs and the style would permeate the Hollywood Sound.

That symphony – originally inscribed with a biblical quote shared with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord” – was composed in 1895 and premiered the following year (and never performed again in Rachmaninoff's lifetime).

The 2nd Piano Concerto was begun late in the summer of 1900 and completed the following spring, then premiered that November with the composer as the soloist. It was then published as his Op. 18.

The Cello Sonata was completed shortly after the concerto's premiere and itself performed on December 2nd, 1901, again with the composer at the piano. And published as his Op. 19.

So while the 2nd Piano Concerto was the break-through piece following four years of creative and personal depression, the Sonata was the work that proved he had fully recuperated. Given the works he would go on to compose, one might call that the “best vengeance.”

Keep in mind, when Rachmaninoff wrote this sonata, he was 28 years old.

Here is the legendary Russian cellist Natalia Gutman and pianist Viacheslav Poprugin

(Why Rachmaninoff practically stopped composing after leaving Russia in 1917 is beyond the scope of this post: not only is it another post, it could easily be another book...)

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Rachmaninoff also didn't like to refer to it as a “Cello Sonata.” To him, it should be the “Sonata for Cello and Piano” because he felt both instruments were equal, the piano not being just an accompaniment. And considering he wrote the piano part for himself, it is not something pianists who aren't confident being soloists tackle lightly.

Here's something to keep in mind, listening to this program: Robert Schumann was a pianist (and married to one of the greatest pianists of the 19th Century, Clara Schumann); Felix Mendelssohn was a pianist; Rachmaninoff was one of the greatest pianists of the first half of the 20th Century; Janáček was, perhaps, an indifferent pianist who never tried making a career of it but he was an organist and a teacher of organ in his local conservatory in Brno, Moravia.

And Michael Brown, whose “Two Movements for Cello and Piano” is on the first half of the program, is also, obviously, a pianist.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that none of these composers were cellists...

Anyway, the role of an instrumental performer (one of those terms that seems to imply pianos are not instruments) usually requires the presence of a piano to make something more or less complete, as it were. You know, the “solo instrument” plays the melody while the accompanist thubs away boom-chucking the harmony.

And I hate to bust all those great violinists who play Beethoven Violin Sonatas with “an accompanist.” In the 18th and early 19th Centuries, the common description of such works was “Sonata for Piano and Violin” – even though it boggles the minds of listeners today, they were considered piano sonatas with the accompaniment of a violin. Go figure...

While I should point out you're going to be listening to the Canellakis-Brown Duo and not “Nicholas Canellakis, cellist (and we had to be pay extra so he could bring along his pianist),” here's another of those tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek Conversations with Nick Canellakis and the great pianist Emanuel Ax – who, by the way, recorded the Rachmaninoff Sonata with the equally great but incredibly better known Yo-Yo Ma which still remains one of the best recordings of the work out there.

There was a friend of mine, a pianist, from my days in New York City where I attempted to spend two years as a free-lance starving musician – let's call her Dora Matte – who had a totally obsequious view of her role as a pianist collaborating with other musicians. She saw herself as what they might call today a “Pianist with Benefits,” I guess – you know, “I get his coffee, I pick up his dry-cleaning before the concert, I walk the dog while he practices,” that kind of thing. And of course “I do whatever he tells me to do about interpretation, dynamics, tempo – the works.”

Listen to the old Heifetz recordings of the Beethoven sonatas with pianist Brooks Smith and hear violin noodlings during those “accompanimental passages” in the audio foreground while the piano playing the melody sounds like it's off somewhere in the wings, its sound being picked up only by the “soloist's” mike.

Now, Brooks Smith was an incredible pianist and teacher – he taught “accompanying” as a degree program at the Eastman School of Music when I was there, and friends of mine raved about the insights he would drop during a lesson (nothing about dry-cleaning, however).

When I say someone is a “fine accompanist,” I usually mean the pianist has the ability of a mind-reader to anticipate what the instrumentalist or vocalist is going to do (especially vocalists) – making those fine nuances of phrasing, quick turns in the tempo, matching dynamics in the build of a crescendo or the sudden change of a dramatic subito piano.

And, ironically, this is a real challenge even when playing the simplest of accompaniments, those boom-chucky mechanical harmonizations where you could just go along [boom-chuckboom-chuckboom-chuck] once you've set up the pattern, but that would put the “soloist” in a straight-jacket when, really, they just want to wallow in rubato, that stretching and pulling of the beat for emotion's sake, giving them time to toss the head back and roll their eyes.

A child could play some of those accompaniments – it's unfortunate that a lot of pianists sound like children when they're playing them, but I digress...

And that's not going to fly in something like the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata - I mean, the Sonata for Cello and Piano.

Today, most pianists who play sonatas with other musicians prefer to be called “collaborative artists” which some other instrumental musicians like to think of as another of those “politically correct” terms (“imagine, next they'll be wanting equal pay!”).

Rachmaninoff rarely ever “accompanied” another musician – he was primarily a soloist either playing concertos with orchestra or solo piano recitals. He did, on numerous occasions, play with the great violinist, Fritz Kreisler, who was a phenomenal musician if a little care-free in his practicing. One wonders how the stone-faced Russian Rachmaninoff and the ebullient Viennese Kreisler ever got along.

One famous story has it that, in the midst of one of those Beethoven sonatas, Kreisler had a memory slip and forgot where he was. He sidled up to Rachmaninoff, leaned over and whispered “where are we?”

Rachmaninoff, without missing a beat, said “Carnegie Hall.”

So, don't forget - the Canellakis-Brown Duo with cellist Nicholas Canellakis and pianist Michael Brown live at Market Square Church, Saturday Nov. 7th at 8pm, playing not only the Rachmaninoff Sonata but works by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Janáček and also Michael Brown as well as a Bulgarian Folk Dance (dancers not included).

- Dick Strawser

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