Sunday, 8 January 2017

Rachmaninov contra barbaros

A recent discovery of a new version of Rachmaninov's Nunc dimittis has been on my mind for various reasons. Most particularly, I suppose, it is because Rachmaninov's music bespeaks the warm blanket of comfort that this period of the year seems to offer us. Some find these months hard; lethargy is all too easy; the dark nights remain with us. The dark nights of city and Church perhaps. But there is always comfort to be found somewhere, and I only need hear a few lines of Rachmaninov's Russian voice to feel almost human(e) once more. Indeed, Rachmaninov is not only one of my barriers against the cold season. He helps give me a further layer of protection against the ghastly forces ranged against us. It might be fun for me to explain that a little.

Why I would feel better after a few bars of Rachmaninov perhaps has something to do with where and when I heard his music and drank of its depths. In one of my fading sepia memories, a school friend - now incidentally a very successful impresario - fell in love with the Second Piano concerto and played it continually. In his sitting room at home behind his father's butcher's shop, he had one of those rare things: an upright practice piano that could actually hold its tuning. It also had the most sensitive action I have seen on any piano. The keys melted like butter beneath the fingers and the instrument almost played the music for you. My friend pored over the score of Rachmaninov's concerto for weeks, I turned the pages and made the tea, and something like music was the end result.

Rach 2 and then Rach 3 (way before Shine made it popular) became favoured pieces on my Walkman circa 1988. The tape I possessed boasted both concertos and - pure delight! - also a recording of the Isle of the Dead,  Rachmaninov's tone poem inspired by Arnold Böcklin's famous painting:

Many other Rach memories surface as I write these lines. I once sat in rapture on the edge of my seat while the Halle orchestra performed Rachmaninov's 2nd Symphony. I left the concert with a stiff neck but a soul transformed! The tape I mentioned above with the Isle of the Dead once saved me from a very bad bout of sea sickness in the English channel. Not many years later I saw two performances of Rach 3 by young piano students. The first dripped sweat and blood throughout all three movements and practically had to be carried off at the end. The second had such a huge technique he tickled the entire piece out of his Steinway with all the ease of someone playing Chopsticks. I've never seen such an effortless performance, yet today I cannot find any trace of him on the internet. Sic transit gloria pianisti!

My romance with Rachmaninov continued some years later when I came to discover the All Night Vigil. There is not time enough to say how it takes all of Rachmaninov's lyricism - all of its complex colours and silken textures - and distills it into a most sacred liquor. Rachmaninov's bass lines are always coherent, but in the Vigil they are magisterial. His harmonies are always dense but in the Vigil they achieve something of the glory of an Orthodox mosaic - all golds and glimmering and distant depths. It is a reminder of how far the West has fallen from its own liturgical glories; how badly our clunky musical prosody falls short of an authentic liturgical poetry.  

Spending time with such music gradually begins to give you a sense of what the utilitarian and empiricist nineteenth century had tried to drive out of the human soul. We are not just all cogs in a grand machine of profit, tax and painful productivity. There are vistas beyond the measurable, stories that cannot be reduced to calculations, feelings that are ineffable. A few minutes with Rachmaninov and liberation from the treadmill seems possible. Rachmaninov himself found the treadmill overwhelming. He certainly didn't enjoy the kind of perfectionist criticism that has no time for human inconsistency. Blindly he inflicted it on himself as a young man and brought himself to a nervous breakdown.

The worst and most oft repeated accusation against Rachmaninov is that he is a Romantic, a purveyor of melodramatic inauthenticity bordering on sickly sweetness. I'm not sure what he is supposed to be instead, but frankly the accusation is unfounded. As his fellow countryman Prokofiev wrote (I approximate), "There are still many melodies left to be written in C major." Rachmaninov knew it, though I dare say he preferred C minor. Indeed, I'm inclined to say Rachmaninov's melodic gift was superior to Prokofiev's. He certainly had a more fruitful imagination than the drab but far more respectable Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and Berg.

His greater achievement though, at least in my view, was to evoke all the vistas of human emotion in an age of abusive repression; an age of stunted Gradgrindism with its self-proclaimed ownership of the human future. Progress sounds fun but why is it always backed by such unconvincing advocates? In all their errors of taste lies a clue to the errors of their mind. A veritable Isle of the Dead indeed.


  1. My only comment is "yes, indeed" but I would have loved to have seen the old lady coming for her roady bacon hearing this strange noise coming from the back of the shop ... !

  2. I am completely ignorant of classical music but yearn to know more.I often wonder why they don't teach it in schools and universities like they do Art History. Will you give us a course?

  3. I shall endeavour to talk about it more often. We need our consolations in these appalling times!