Rachmaninov: Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor (1892, 15 minutes)

Rachmaninov wrote his Trio élégiaque No. 1 in just four days in January 1892 – the nineteen-year-old had just graduated in the piano class at the Moscow Conservatory, and was in the midst of completing the opera Aleko that would be his graduation assignment for his composition degree and which would win him the Conservatory’s Gold Medal. A second Trio élégiaque emerged the following year, Rachmaninov’s response to the death of Tchaikovsky.

In a single movement sonata form, the Trio élégiaque No. 1 begins with a melody played by the piano, with quiet, spare accompaniment from the strings. Later, the other two instruments take up the theme before the piano introduces a second subject. Like the Trio élégiaque No. 2, the first Trio has some connection with Tchaikovsky, particularly in its opening theme, which alludes to the famous opening of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (the first four notes of the theme are, in reverse and in minor, the same as those of Tchaikovsky’s concerto), and in its conclusion, a funeral march like the one that closes Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A minor. Rachmaninov’s funeral march is a variation of the Trio’s opening theme, in octaves on the strings, leading to the piano chords that bring the work to a close.

Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 36 (1913, 21 minutes)

At the end of 1912, having just completed an extensive series of concerts in Moscow, Rachmaninov took his family on a brief holiday in Switzerland before moving to Rome for a time. Two of his daughters became ill, however, and after they were treated in Berlin, the family moved to the Rachmaninov country estate in southern Russia. There, while also hard at work on his choral work The Bells, Rachmaninov composed his Piano Sonata No. 2, completing it in September 1913. Its opening Allegro agitato begins dramatically with a plunge into the bass register, two abrupt chords, and a falling figure in the left hand. Years later Rachmaninov found the high drama and extravagance of this movement a bit much, and in his 1931 revision cut some 120 bars, thinning textures and removing a few virtuoso gestures. The second movement follows without a pause, moving from melancholy to an ecstatic climax before the Finale, which mixes hints of a satirical march with a big lyrical tune and powerful virtuoso display.

Rachmaninov: Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19 (1901, 32 minutes)

The story is well-known of Rachmaninov’s mental breakdown and creative block after the disastrous premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in 1897, as well as his gradual recovery and triumphant return with the Piano Concerto No. 2, written the year before the Cello Sonata and first performed just a month before the Sonata was. As cellist Steven Isserlis has written, “Surely it is not fanciful to hear an echo of this in the struggles of the first movement, with its conflict between semitones and whole tones; in the dark night of the Scherzo; and then in the blazing joy of the Finale?” Isserlis sums up the Cello Sonata as “a journey of the soul.”

Many hear the influence of the music of the Russian Orthodox Church in the hymn-like quality, repeated notes, and bell-like sounds of the Sonata’s melodies. Generally, the work’s themes are introduced by the piano, and then elaborated on by the cello. The six-note theme introduced by the piano in the first movement’s slow introduction becomes prominent as the movement progresses. As the music speeds, the cello presents a passionate yet lyrical new theme. After a restrained new idea, the melodies receive a stormy treatment in the development. Intricate piano writing marks the largely fiery second movement. Both here and in the following Andante, Rachmaninov’s contemporaneous Piano Concerto No. 2 is called strongly to mind. The piano begins the Andante with a heartfelt melody over quiet chords. The melody continues to unfurl as the cello joins in passionately. The fourth movement starts with an exuberant theme, but soon moves into a more lyrical mode. Both of these themes are developed, leading to a brief recollection of the six-note theme from the first movement before the work’s brilliant conclusion.

Program Notes by Chris Morrison