Elégie – Rachmaninov – a heart in exile

Reviewer's Rating

In recent years Lucy Parham has moved beyond her solo pianistic career to create a series of well-regarded ‘Composer Portraits’ in which she joins forces with a narrator. The script, written by Parham, is then interspersed with a series of generally short but complete piano pieces. This format can work remarkably well when there is a mutually illuminating dialogue in play between words and music and where the composer has left a developed, aesthetically articulate verbal legacy in addition to their music. Letters, diaries and memoirs, when carefully collated and interpolated, cast a penumbra of added meaning around the musical language of the piano that can evoke whole worlds, espeically when those words encompass a range of characters in the composer’s circle. I was particularly impressed by her study of Clara Schumann, where you get three for the price of one, through triangulation with Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

Here Simon Russell Beale joins her for a portrait of the life and work of Sergei Rachmaninov, whose varied life offers much rich potential. Looking like a kindly but care-worn Turgenev, Russell Beale takes us through a choppy and unhappy childhood, an austerely rigorous conservatoire training, and on to early virtuoso success, chronic depression, and finally and most dramatically, enforced departure in 1917, with reemergence on the American concert platform. Along the way, presented in a beautifully modulated speaking voice, are many reflections on Russian identity and the trials and rewards of a performer who also sought the right circumstances in which he could compose. The great sadness was that though exile conferred physical security and a measure of affluence, the composer’s creativity was bound up in his Russian identity which he found hard to sustain away from St Petersburg and his wife’s estate. Ultimately he seemed most settled in a recreated villa on Lake Lucerne that most approximated to that lost countryside retreat.

While the programme is continuously engaging, the second half of evening has more impact and variety for the listener. Whereas early on the diet of finely wrought preludes was occasionally bland and unexciting, in the second a wider range of composers and genres offered plenty of colour, keyboard dynamism and formal variation. We were reminded of the continuing influence of Chopin, the supportive role of Tchaikovsky, Scriabin as a quirky contemporary, and Rachmaninov’s care and imagination as an arranger as much as an independent creator. A big-boned, beethovenian arrangement of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ announced his arrival in the USA, and a Kreisler miniature, decked out with felicitous filigree figuration, confirmed the care he took even over trifles.

We could perhaps have done with fewer and more substantial pieces overall – some of the moody and painterly ‘Etudes-Tableaux’ would have represented the composer’s originality more convincingly. But it was hard to argue with the psychological lines of the portrait presented. Parham and Russell Beale found a lot more than Stravinsky’s mordant definition of ‘6’6″ of Russian gloom’. There was plenty of self-deprecating humour and wry observation of the foibles of the modern world. Although a self-conscious and ornery reactionary, with many demons to keep under control, Rachmaninov came over as a fully-formed, authentic creative persona, rather in the same way that Solzhenitsyn did many decades later in his own American exile.

In this kind of exercise, depth of coverage has to give way inevitably to narrative cohesion: there will always be be regrettable omissions and necessary, occasionally meretricious, inclusions. I would have liked to see more coverage of his sacred music, for example. But what we received was a very appealing taster menu that sends the audience away with a clear dramatic appreciation of the life of a composer whose range of work outside a few overplayed pieces, is still underappreciated.