Token Creek Chamber Music

Program IV

Program IV - Finale

Sunday, September 11, 2022 at 4:00 P.M.


Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28 Camille Saint-Saëns The Token Creek Festival 1989 – 2022 Rose Mary & John Harbison Reflections from the Artistic Directors Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 18 Sergei Rachmaninoff Ya-Fei Chuang, pianoRobert Levin, piano Rose Mary Harbison, violinJohn Harbison, piano

Program Notes

Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2

Our final concert presents a piano concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff, a composer who developed his rich, detailed, decoratively contrapuntal style in late nineteenth-century Russia, and stuck to it throughout his career.   When he died in Beverly Hills, California in 1943 his music, especially his concertos for piano, retained its Old World glamour.  His last major piece, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934), precedes Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time by only six years, on the calendar, but by light years in stylistic thinking—one of the fun near-collisions in Music History. 

Although performance of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto came to be described in the press as akin to setting a record in the Olympic Decathlon, Rachmaninoff himself was an aristocratic performer (and composer).  His playing and his pieces offer a very thorough and traditional kind of banked fire, measured discipline.  And they depend on a very rare compositional gift: melody. 

It is a good guess in staging and pairing every movement he wrote that Rachmaninoff was already fundamentally sure that he had his tune ready.  His melodies are long, by classical music standards, often the length of the thirty-two bar music-theater standard, and they offer rich harmonic and textural possibilities.  

The entry of the Big Tune in a Rachmaninoff piece is usually staged like the first appearance of a star on stage and screen—an atmosphere, an imminence, then the entrance of a melody-never-disappointing, always capable of wearing various kinds of clothes, of extending the clauses and exclamations and, above all, treated lovingly and never deferentially. 

Compositional fundamentals are never lacking in Rachmaninoff’s music.  The counterpoints sound spontaneous, but are also very pure in construction; the bass line moves with authority, suggesting the composer’s parallel virtues as a writer for chorus. 

And in the end what we have is something not all good music has: an appreciation for glamour, for free spending, for a kind of irresistible excess. 

None of these qualities would be accessible to  the composer without that dazzling old-time craft and savvy, his aristocratic good taste. 

Saint-Saëns, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso

We precede the Rachmaninoff concerto with another piece from the patrician virtuoso tradition, in this case from France, composed in 1867 by Camille Saint-Saëns: Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.  It was written for Pablo Sarasate, a young (23-year old) Spanish violinist. 

Throughout his long career, Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) witnessed a grand panorama of French music, from Berlioz and Meyerbeer through to Poulenc, Stravinsky, and his own pupil Fauré.  As a composer, anything that elegant craftiness could support, he could do. 

The original accompaniment is for orchestra.  The piano version was made by Georges Bizet, during the long, difficult period when Bizet barely survived, getting by making piano arrangements (his operas had not yet been performed).  His reduction gives evidence of fastidious keyboard thinking.  Twenty years later the publisher also produced a two-piano arrangement of this piece, by a then unknown young composer, Claude Debussy.

— Notes by John Harbison
Artistic Co-Director, Token Creek Chamber Music Festival