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The Rachmaninov Challenge

May 13, 2008

There are several pianists today who have built their repertoire around the music of a particular composer. I can think of a number of prominent artists specializing in Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Chopin. But I would hesitate to name a foremost “Rachmaninovist.”
Pianists face daunting difficulties when they play Rachmaninov. They have to generate that special, rich, and full-bodied tone associated with the composer. They must spin out long, sinuous, melodic lines, usually more than one (often more than two) at the same time, and then weave these lines through complex textures without losing their view of the entire structure. They have to create immensely expansive, surging waves of intensity, while maintaining springy and, at times, explosive rhythmic vitality. They must possess a tremendous dynamic range, from velvety pianissimo to overwhelmingly booming bell-tones.

Some pianists understand that their performing styles or abilities don’t fit the bill, so they stay away altogether. Alfred Brendel even tried to justify his decision not to play Rachmaninov, by declaring that “Rachmaninov to me seems like a waste of time.”

Mihaela Ursuleasa, a Romanian-born, Vienna-based pianist, who played a concert last Tuesday at Herbst Theatre, presented by San Francisco Performances, was brave enough to dedicate the entire second half of the program to the composer’s Études-Tableaux, Op. 39. Unfortunately, the risk she took did not pay off.
War Pictures
Rachmaninov published two collections of Études-Tableaux, or “picture-studies.” The second of the two sets, Op. 39, is virtuosic in the extreme. Finished in early 1917, a few months before the calamitous Russian Revolution and Rachmaninov’s subsequent departure from his native country, it was conceived as reflections on World War I. All the études save for the last one are in the minor mode, and the whole set has been described as variations on the Dies irae, the ominous medieval chant from the Requiem Mass.

In Ursuleasa’s hands, the Études-Tableaux came out as splashy études rather than heartrending pictorials. The tempos were often rushed at the cost of some missed or replaced notes. A missed note here and there, especially since the Études-Tableaux contain so many to begin with, is an easily forgivable sin. But missed melodic lines in the lower voices are an entirely different matter. Ursuleasa’s rather impressionistic approach to the Études-Tableaux undermined both the vocal nature of Rachmaninov’s linear developments and the darkly hued, nearly apocalyptic imagery.

The sixth étude, according to the composer himself, was inspired by the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. Unlike the famed fable, however, Rachmaninov’s version does not arrive at a happy ending. From the first to the last bar, it is a highly disturbing, even devastating piece. Ursuleasa — perhaps unwittingly — presented a much more benign account of the piece, in which the fatigued Wolf eventually gives up his pursuit.

The first half of the program was far more successful. It consisted of Nikolai Medtner’s Sonata Reminiscenza, Op. 38, No.1, and Robert Schumann’s Phantasiestücke, Op. 12. Medtner, a younger contemporary of Rachmaninov’s, was largely overshadowed during his life by his illustrious good friend, and he is still not as widely performed nowadays as Rachmaninov. But his music has its devotees who value Medtner’s remarkable compositional craftsmanship, lyrical appeal, complex polyphonic layering, and rhythmic sophistication.

In both the Medtner and the Schumann, Ursuleasa’s best qualities came to the fore. She is an intelligent pianist who possesses a firm grasp of polyphony and an acute sense of timing. Her playing, under the right circumstances, is marked by rhetorical directness and sincerity that can be deeply moving. She seemingly enjoys the piquant rhythmic interplays that are so vital in both the Sonata Reminiscenza and the Phantasiestücke. The two encores Ursuleasa played after the disappointing Rachmaninov set, Paul Constantinescu’s Toccata and Chopin’s Third Ballade, fortunately restored and reinforced the positive impressions of the first half of the concert.

Anatole Leikin is Professor of Music at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has published in various musicological journals and essay collections worldwide and recorded piano works of Scriabin, Chopin, and Cope. His critically acclaimed books The Performing Style of Alexander Scriabin and The Mystery of Chopin's Préludes were recently published by Ashgate Publishing (UK) and reissued by Routledge (UK). Dr. Leikin also serves as an editor for The Complete Chopin — A New Critical Edition (Peters, UK).