The Rachmaninov method: Practise like a snail, play like a gazelle

A painstaking approach could be the key to the composer’s complex and technical work

Chinese pianist Yuja Wang made her Dublin debut last week in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, playing it with what you might call super-high resolution

Chinese pianist Yuja Wang made her Dublin debut last week in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, playing it with what you might call super-high resolution

 

What do American pianist, composer and broadcaster Abram Chasins (1903-87) and Irish pianist Charles Lynch (1906-84) have in common? They both had piano lessons with Rachmaninov.

Charles Lynch gave the first Dublin performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini in 1941 and was Radio Éireann’s pianist of choice for Rachmaninov performances in the early years of its symphony orchestra.

In the late 1930s the composer coached Lynch in his Second Piano Sonata, though the widely reproduced claim that Lynch gave the work’s first English performance has to be untrue, since Rachmaninov himself had played it in Bradford in 1914.

Sadly, none of Lynch’s Rachmaninov performances are available to the public. But Chasins, in his book Speaking of Pianists, did leave an account of one of his Rachmaninov encounters.

“Arriving at the designated hour of twelve,” he wrote, “I heard an occasional piano sound as I approached the cottage. I stood outside the door, unable to believe my ears. Rachmaninov was practising Chopin’s Étude in thirds, but at such a snail’s pace that it took me a while to recognise it because so much time elapsed between each finger stroke at the next.”

Chasins was so fascinated by the slow speed that he looked at his watch to clock what he was hearing. He reported that “twenty seconds per bar was his pace for almost an hour”. Chasins described himself as “rivetted to the spot, quite unable to ring the bell”. 

The piece normally takes about two minutes to play. Rachmaninov’s chosen speed was so slow that in the hour Chasins was listening he would have got through it only three times.

Time for thinking

One of the points of slow practice, of course, is that it allows plenty of time for thinking. The thinking is fast while the notes few, unlike any eventual concert performance, where the thinking/playing ratio is often the other way around. 

Chinese pianist Yuja Wang made her Dublin debut last week in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. Strange as it may seem, I have actually heard Yuja Wang practising, though I didn’t have the opportunity to stop and listen properly. I heard her for a few seconds only, on a corridor in the studio of the Orchestra della Svizzera italiana in Lugano, where I was going to interview Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu.  

I had spent the afternoon listening to Lintu in rehearsal and, as we walked to the canteen for the interview, he commented on the sounds of a Brahms piano concerto coming from a practice room. Yuja Wang, he said, gesturing. And then he added something to the effect that she was the real thing.

Her high-resolution approach revealed the piano writing with remarkably fine detail

That very real thing was on display in the Rachmaninov with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Myung-whun Chung at the National Concert Hall last Wednesday. She played the piece with what, in this digital age, you might call super-high resolution, so high, in fact, that it would be easy to imagine Wang practising in the same kind of patient, painstaking way that Rachmaninov did. 

Her high-resolution approach revealed the piano writing with remarkably fine detail, with lots of air between the notes rather than the blurring effect of an over-used sustaining pedal. There was simply no listening effort required to be able to experience the intricacy of the piano writing with almost microscopically close perspective.

Musically, her approach was what you might call anti-sentimental, not lacking in sentiment, but almost completely without the emotional swooning or drooling that Rachmaninov often elicits. 

The concerto dates from 1909 and, in spite of its notorious difficulty, is from an entirely different world than the progressive output of the likes of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók and Webern at that time. 

Shift the perspective

Wang’s achievement was to shift the perspective a little on Rachmaninov’s romanticism, and show how the brilliance of the writing can be read in a more modernist way. Chung took a more conventional approach in conducting but somehow also always facilitated the adventurous journey that Wang had undertaken. 

Brahms, cf course, never visited Ireland. But Rachmaninov did. He played in Dublin’s Theatre Royal in March 1938

After the interval Chung and his players took an impressively songful route through Brahms’s Second Symphony. The songfulness was not restricted to the upper or most prominent lines, but was thoroughgoing. Middle voices sang freely, too, and the effect was to present the work with an always healthy and hearty warm glow. 

Brahms, cf course, never visited Ireland. But Rachmaninov did. He played in Dublin’s Theatre Royal in March 1938. “Like Kreisler,” this newspaper reported, “he has no place in his work for showmanship or unnecessary gesture. The interpretation of the music is his primary concern, and to it he brings the poise and assurance of the perfect technician. Deep, penetrating thought is evidenced in all his playing.” 

Dorothy Stokes, who taught for many years at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, was at the concert, and a pupil of hers told me that she regarded Rachmaninov as the greatest pianist she had ever heard.

Abram Chasins also studied with Josef Hofmann, a pianist who, if anything, was regarded even more highly than Rachmaninov himself. Rachmaninov wrote the Third Concerto for Hofmann and dedicated it to him. The composer played the work for Hofmann in 1911, and the response was negative: “A short melody which is constantly interrupted with difficult passages; more a fantaisie than a concerto. Not enough form.”

Hofmann, who had other works by Rachmaninov in his repertoire, never played the Third Concerto.

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