Revival of a Melancholy Genius

GLENN McNATT

January 23, 1993|By GLENN McNATT

When pianist Garrick Ohlsson performs Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra next month, it will mark the second time within a year the BSO has presented this remarkable work and a fitting tribute to the 50th anniversary of the composer's death.

Rachmaninoff has been enjoying something of a revival lately. For years his music was viewed askance by critics and music historians because of its unabashed Romanticism. He seemed completely uninterested in the modernist experiments of such illustrious contemporaries as Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

''I try to make music speak simply and directly that which is in my heart at the time I am composing,'' he once said. ''If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious.''

He was a lonely, enigmatic man who even among friends seemed perpetually sad. Writers Milton Cross and David Ewen, in their ''New Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and their Music,'' offered a compelling portrait of the artist:

''His monk-like tonsure, the way in which his thick Slavic lips curled downward at the edges, the deep creases of the brow and face, all of course contributed to give him an austere appearance. The austerity was there, but with that austerity an overwhelming suggestion of tragedy.

''You looked into his eyes and had the uncomfortable feeling that whatever light once glowed there had long ago been extinguished to be replaced by a world-weariness. As he sat talking, he gave the impression of a man sagged under an accumulation of sorrows.''

Part of Rachmaninoff's tragic melancholy undoubtedly stemmed from his self-imposed exile from his beloved Russia, which he fled during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

He settled first in Switzerland, from which he ventured on frequent concert tours to the United States between 1918 and 1935. After 1935, he made the United States his home. Shortly before his death he became an American citizen.

Rachmaninoff was unusual in that he managed to pursue three musical careers during his life, those of composer, conductor and virtuoso pianist -- all of them successfully.

The son of an aristocratic family reduced to genteel poverty by his father's bankruptcy, he showed extraordinary musical talent early on and was already an adept performer by the age of four.

In 1885 he enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory, where he was a brilliant but indolent student who cut classes shamelessly. One of his teachers had to resort to sending a special messenger to Rachmaninoff's house with the day's lessons and instructions not to return until she had the pupil's homework in hand.

''Once or twice I was caught,'' Rachmaninoff later recalled, ''but the third time I gave orders to say that I was out, so she was obliged to leave the manuscript paper.''

Still, Rachmaninoff graduated from the conservatory with highest honors and immediately embarked on a career that within a few years would bring him to very the pinnacle of success in the musical world.

Success did not come without struggle, however. His Symphony No. 1, introduced in St. Petersburg in 1897, was a critical and artistic disaster. The failure of this youthful work plunged Rachmaninoff into a profound nervous depression, from which he emerged only gradually under the tender ministrations of his grandmother and the expert care of a celebrated Moscow physician named Dr. Dahl, who practiced an early form of psychotherapy.

Dr. Dahl's method was based on the power of auto-suggestion. He worked to rebuild the young artist's shattered self-confidence by patiently repeating the phrases, ''You will compose again. You will write a piano concerto. You will write with great facility.''

Slowly, Rachmaninoff recovered. He set to work and soon completed his Piano Concerto No. 2, which has since become one of the most beloved works of its type written this century, full of warm-blooded melodies, exciting, passionate utterances and dramatic climaxes and contrasts. As Dr. Dahl had promised, the writing came easily, and the finished work was an immediate triumph.

Baltimoreans will have a chance to relive this bit of musical history Feb. 4 and 5, when David Zinman and the BSO join Mr. Ohlsson in bringing this modern masterpiece to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. It is an opportunity not to be missed.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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