These two works, performed in early March 2009 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Alan Gilbert, elicited these observations by musicologist and composer Mark DeVoto.
Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
A rhapsody, says the American Heritage Dictionary, is “a composition of irregular form and often improvisatory character,” a convenient definition especially when the composer isn’t certain what else to call a composition. Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies are mostly sectional, with the sections unrelated to each other; Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue has one or two themes that return repeatedly but are sparingly developed; and even the second scene of Berg’s Wozzeck, which depends on dramatic progression, was called by him a “rhapsody on three chords.”
Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is more highly structured and formally economical than the title would indicate. It consists of 24 variations, some of them freely expanded into cadenzas, but with an overall layout roughly corresponding to a three-movements-in-one form, fast-slow-fast. The theme from Paganini’s 24th Caprice was the springboard for one of Liszt’s Grand Etudes (No. 5), as well as for virtuoso variation sets by Schumann and Brahms and, in our own time, by Lutoslawski; but Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody has always been the best known of all of these, and, of all of his works for piano and orchestra, the most grateful to play. It may not be as popular with the public as the immortal Second Concerto, but neither is it as grandiose and bombastic.
I’m looking at the performance history, too. Rachmaninoff played the premiere of the Rhapsody in Baltimore in 1934, and the Boston premieres in 1937 with Koussevitzky. (I remember that Rachmaninoff twice was offered, and twice refused, the directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.) I grew up with a recording of the Rhapsody played by Julius Katchen and the London Philharmonic under Sir Adrian Boult, and I never heard a better one; but Tuesday’s performance at the Boston Symphony under Guest Conductor Alan Gilbert was certainly of that caliber.