Nov 282017
 

On this date in 1909 Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto number 3 in D minor (affectionately known as Rach 3) was first performed by Rachmaninoff himself with the now-defunct New York Symphony Society, Walter Damrosch conducting, at the New Theater (later rechristened the Century Theater). Rach 3 has the, well-deserved, reputation of being one of the most technically challenging piano concertos in the standard classical repertoire. Here’s a recording of Vladimir Horowitz who is largely responsible for making Rach 3 as popular as it is today:

Rachmaninoff played the concerto again on January 16, 1910 under the baton of Gustav Mahler, which Rachmaninoff treasured because of Mahler’s famous attention to detail. Rachmaninoff wrote:

At that time Mahler was the only conductor whom I considered worthy to be classed with Nikisch. He devoted himself to the concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to perfection, although he had already gone through another long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important — an attitude too rare amongst conductors. … Though the rehearsal was scheduled to end at 12:30, we played and played, far beyond this hour, and when Mahler announced that the first movement would be rehearsed again, I expected some protest or scene from the musicians, but I did not notice a single sign of annoyance. The orchestra played the first movement with a keen or perhaps even closer appreciation than the previous time.

Rach 3 generally follows the classical, standard form for a concerto. It has three movements:

  1. Allegro ma non tanto (D minor)

The first movement involves a first theme, a diatonic melody, that resonates throughout, and a second theme in B♭ major, that drifts in and out.  The movement reaches a number of ferocious climaxes, especially in the cadenza. Rachmaninoff wrote two versions of this cadenza: the chordal original, which is commonly notated as the ossia, and a second one with a lighter, toccata-like style. Both cadenzas lead into a quiet solo section where the flute, oboe, clarinet and horn restate the first theme of the exposition, accompanied by delicate arpeggios in the piano. The cadenza then ends quietly, but the piano alone continues to play a quiet development of the exposition’s second theme in E♭ major before leading to the recapitulation, where the first theme is restated by the piano, with the orchestra accompanying, closing with a quiet, rippling coda reminiscent of the second theme.

  1. Intermezzo: Adagio (D minor → F♯ minor → D♭ major → B♭ minor → F♯ minor → D minor)

The second movement has two themes, moving from minor to major in a series of developments and recapitulations before the first theme from the first movement re-emerges. The movement is closed by the orchestra in a manner similar to the introduction, but then the piano gets the last word with a short cadenza-like passage which moves into the last movement without pause.

  1. Finale: Alla breve (D minor → D major)

The third movement is quick and vigorous, containing variations on many of the themes that are used in the first movement. However, after the first and second themes it diverges from the regular sonata-allegro form. There is no conventional development; that segment is replaced by a lengthy digression using the major key of the third movement’s first theme, which leads to the two themes from the first movement. After the digression, the movement recapitulation returns to the original themes, building up to a toccata climax somewhat similar but lighter than the first movement’s ossia cadenza and accompanied by the orchestra. The movement concludes with a triumphant and passionate second theme melody in D major. The piece ends with the same four-note as both Rachmaninoff’s second concerto and second symphony: claimed by some critics as his “musical signature.”

Rachmaninoff, under pressure, and hoping to make his work more popular, authorized several cuts in the score, to be made at the performer’s discretion. These cuts, particularly in the second and third movements, were commonly taken in performance and recordings during the initial decades following the concerto’s publication, particularly by Horowitz. More recently, it has become commonplace to perform the concerto without cuts.

Rachmaninoff composed the concerto at his wife’s family’s country estate, Ivanovka, where he often retired to have the serenity to compose in peace; completing it on September 23, 1909.

The concerto is respected, even feared, by many pianists. Josef Hofmann, the pianist to whom the work is dedicated, never publicly performed it, saying that it wasn’t for him – presumably meaning he was afraid to play it.  Gary Graffman lamented he had not learned this concerto as a student, when he was “still too young to know fear.” Due to time constraints, Rachmaninoff himself could not practice the piece while in Russia. Instead, he practiced it on a silent keyboard that he brought with him while en route to the United States.

I am not a pianist, so I cannot speak to the technical difficulties of the piece. It is often called the K2 of the piano repertoire, K2 being the second highest peak in the world, but the most dangerous mountain to climb: killing one in four people who attempt to reach the summit. Some players or commentators claim that the technical difficulty of the piece derives from the fact that Rachmaninoff had abnormally large hands’ with very long fingers, and may also have had Marfan syndrome, meaning that he had unusually flexible joints. From thumb to little finger he could span a major 13th (an average player can span an octave — that is, perfect 8th).

While Rachmaninoff’s physical peculiarities are a matter of record, they do not, in and of themselves, explain the technical difficulties of the piece. Django Reinhardt played amazing guitar solos using only two fingers on his left hand because the others were paralyzed. I’m not saying that Reinhardt and Rachmaninoff are comparable in any way; merely pointing out that you do not have to be a genetic freak to play difficult piano passages – but you do have to work hard at it.

The movie Shine (1996), concerning the life trials of the Australian pianist David Helfgott, features the concerto, and is responsible for giving it the nickname Rach 3. It contains this dialog between Helfgott and his teacher, Cecil Parks:

Parkes: Rachmaninov? Are you sure?
David: Kind of. I’m not really sure about anything.
Parkes: The Rach 3. It’s monumental.
David: It’s a mountain. The hardest piece you could everest play.
Parkes: No one’s ever been mad enough to attempt the Rach Three.
David: Am I mad enough, professor? Am I?

In my amateur opinion, I would venture to say that the Rach 3 is not so very different from many other technically difficult piano pieces in that it’s not just a matter of getting the notes right, but doing them justice.

Rachmaninoff often has the reputation these days for being a rather lugubrious presence because he was tall (6’ 6”/198 cm) and thin, and given to long bouts of depression, especially following poor receptions of his works. But his friends always tempered this judgment by saying that he loved good food, and was a rollicking dinner companion. He and Stravinsky were good friends, despite their radically different musical visions, and often dined together in Russia, leading to one of those tales that musicians love to tell about the famous. One night, Stravinsky had gone to bed late after working on his orchestral suite, “Four Norwegian Moods,” and, as he was dozing off, he was startled by footsteps on the porch outside. A minute later, Rachmaninoff was towering over his bed carrying a huge jar of natural honey. A few nights previously, over a meal, Stravinsky had mentioned how much he loved honey, so Rachmaninoff felt compelled to bring some round, regardless of the hour.

I also have a newspaper clipping from a reporter in Texas who interviewed Rachmaninoff over dinner when he was on tour. The reporter notes that Rachmaninoff ordered lobster salad in avocado, seafood chowder, and a salad. It’s a start, and prevents me from digging into my archive of Saint Petersburg recipes. I think that pairing lobster salad with avocado is an excellent idea, but I prefer to serve the lobster and avocado separately (with some lettuce), to able to control the balance of lobster and avocado better. If you simply remove the avocado pit, the remaining hole does not have much room in it for the lobster. Furthermore, I like the lobster meat in lobster salad to contain some nice big chunks.

For four diners I’d start with 1 lb of cooked lobster meat with the claw and tail meat as whole as possible. If you want smaller pieces break it up with your hands, rather than cutting it.  Toss the lobster in freshly squeezed lemon juice and add ½ cup of thinly sliced celery. Mix everything together with about 5 tablespoons of the best mayonnaise you can find (or make it yourself). Peel and slice one whole avocado per person. Sprinkle with fresh lime juice, and serve the avocado with ¼ of the lobster salad on a bed of lettuce or mixed greens. Served this way it is a main course.

 

 

Oct 212016
 

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Today is the birthday (1772) of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English poet, literary critic and philosopher (of sorts) who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and mentioned by critics as a member of the group known as the “Lake Poets” which is now a neutral term, but at the time was a rubric of disparagement. Contemporary critics thought of the Lake Poets as insipid Romantics who preferred to live blissfully in England’s Lake District and while away their time in fruitless and self-absorbed aestheticism. In Wordsworth’s case I couldn’t agree more. Coleridge I am iffy about. As a youth The Rime of the Ancient Mariner captivated me – Kubla Khan left me indifferent. Coleridge’s critical work, especially on Shakespeare, was highly influential in his day, and he helped introduce German idealist philosophy to English-speaking culture. He coined many familiar words and phrases, including “suspension of disbelief.” He was a major influence on Emerson and U.S. transcendentalism.

Coleridge was born in Ottery St Mary in Devon. His father was the Reverend John Coleridge (1718–1781), well-respected vicar of St Mary’s Church in Ottery St Mary and headmaster of the King’s School, a free grammar school established by King Henry VIII in the town. He had previously been Master of Hugh Squier’s School in South Molton in Devon, and Lecturer at nearby Molland. John Coleridge had three children by his first wife. Samuel was the youngest of ten by his second wife, Anne Bowden (1726–1809), probably the daughter of John Bowden, mayor of South Molton. Coleridge notes that he “took no pleasure in boyish sports” but instead read “incessantly” and played by himself. After John Coleridge died in 1781, 8-year-old Samuel was sent to Christ’s Hospital, a charity school which was founded in the 16th century in Greyfriars in London, where he remained throughout his childhood, studying and writing poetry. At school Coleridge became friends with Charles Lamb, who was his schoolmate, and studied the works of Virgil and William Lisle Bowles. He wrote in recollections of his school days in Biographia Literaria:

I enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a very sensible, though at the same time, a very severe master […] At the same time that we were studying the Greek Tragic Poets, he made us read Shakespeare and Milton as lessons: and they were the lessons too, which required most time and trouble to bring up, so as to escape his censure. I learnt from him, that Poetry, even that of the loftiest, and, seemingly, that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes. […] In our own English compositions (at least for the last three years of our school education) he showed no mercy to phrase, metaphor, or image, unsupported by a sound sense, or where the same sense might have been conveyed with equal force and dignity in plainer words… In fancy I can almost hear him now, exclaiming Harp? Harp? Lyre? Pen and ink, boy, you mean! Muse, boy, Muse? your Nurse’s daughter, you mean! Pierian spring? Oh aye! the cloister-pump, I suppose! […] Be this as it may, there was one custom of our master’s, which I cannot pass over in silence, because I think it … worthy of imitation. He would often permit our theme exercises, … to accumulate, till each lad had four or five to be looked over. Then placing the whole number abreast on his desk, he would ask the writer, why this or that sentence might not have found as appropriate a place under this or that other thesis: and if no satisfying answer could be returned, and two faults of the same kind were found in one exercise, the irrevocable verdict followed, the exercise was torn up, and another on the same subject to be produced, in addition to the tasks of the day.

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Coleridge was rarely allowed to return home during the school term, and this distance from his family caused considerable loneliness. You see this reflected in the poem “Frost at Midnight”: “With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt/Of my sweet birthplace.”

From 1791 until 1794, Coleridge attended Jesus College, Cambridge. In 1792, he won the Browne Gold Medal for an ode that he wrote on the slave trade. In December 1793, he left the college and enlisted in the Royal Dragoons using the false name “Silas Tomkyn Comberbache,” perhaps because of debt or because the girl that he loved, Mary Evans, had rejected him. His brothers arranged for his discharge a few months later under the reason of “insanity” and he was readmitted to Jesus College, though he never received a degree from the University.

At Jesus College, Coleridge was introduced to political and theological ideas then considered radical, including those of the poet Robert Southey. Coleridge joined Southey in a plan, soon abandoned, to found a utopian commune-like society, called Pantisocracy, in the wilderness of Pennsylvania. In 1795, the two friends married sisters Sarah and Edith Fricker, in St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, but Coleridge’s marriage with Sarah proved unhappy.

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The years 1797 and 1798, during which he lived in what is now known as Coleridge Cottage, in Nether Stowey, Somerset, were among the most fruitful of Coleridge’s life. In 1795, Coleridge met William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. (Wordsworth, having visited him and being enchanted by the surroundings, rented Alfoxton Park, a little over three miles away.) Besides the Rime of The Ancient Mariner, Coleridge composed the symbolic poem Kubla Khan, written—Coleridge himself claimed—as a result of an opium dream, in “a kind of a reverie,” and the first part of the narrative poem Christabel. The writing of Kubla Khan, written about the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan and his legendary palace at Xanadu, was said to have been interrupted by the arrival of a “Person from Porlock” – an event that has been embellished upon in such varied contexts as science fiction and Nabokov’s Lolita. During this period, he also produced his much-praised “conversation” poems This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Frost at Midnight, and The Nightingale.

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I don’t have much interest in Coleridge. He’s a bit more palatable to me than Wordsworth and the other Lake Poets – marginally. I find Romanticism too self involved and overblown to hold my interest very long. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a small exception. When I was about 15 I bought a fat hard-bound note book and copied into it by hand everything I could find that was nautical in any way. At that time I was fully intent on becoming a Royal Navy officer as my father had been, and wanted to absorb everything available. Copying Ancient Mariner by hand (with margin glosses) was a long labor of love that took many days. In the process I remembered many key stanzas. Now all I have to do is copy and paste like this and you have the text: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43997 Nothing will ever match copying by hand.

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At that time for me the central tale of shooting the albatross, the curse, and the mariner’s salvation were haunting. Now it is the frame tale that captivates me. I can understand the idea of fate – the mariner survives to tell his tale, but not in an ordinary way. He wanders the earth a broken man, and once in a while he is gripped with the urge to tell the tale to a specific person. The urge is so strong that he cannot resist. He MUST tell the tale to that person:

He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.

The poem speaks to the urge to tell one’s tale. I know that urge. I am not the ancient mariner by any stretch of the imagination, but I know about the compulsion, the drive, to narrate. That’s why I am a teacher, preacher, and writer.

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Ottery St Mary where Coleridge was born is a pretty enough village although not dazzling enough to warrant an immediate stop as so many other Devon villages are. I’ve past through many times, but once I spent the night there at a B&B and was able to sample many Devon delights including traditional Devonshire clotted cream as part of a cream tea. It is hard to find clotted cream these days, even in England. You can make it however, and it is almost as good. It is not the real thing if you don’t use Devon cream to start with – but close. Clotted cream is dense cream that is as thick as butter, but pure white and very sweet with concentrated milk sugar.

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Here is a recipe from Cornish Recipes Ancient & Modern by Edith Martin (1929):

Use new milk and strain at once, as soon as milked, into shallow pans. Allow it to stand for 24 hours in winter and 12 hours in summer. Then put the pan on the stove, or better still into a steamer containing water, and let it slowly heat until the cream begins to show a raised ring round the edge. When sufficiently cooked, place in a cool dairy and leave for 12 or 24 hours. Great care must be taken in moving the pans so that the cream is not broken, both in putting on the fire and taking off.  When required skim off the cream in layers into a glass dish for the table, taking care to have a good “crust” on the top.

You are forgiven if you are not any the wiser. The point is that clotted cream is the cream of the cream. Traditionally, clotted cream was created by straining fresh cow’s milk, letting it stand in a shallow pan in a cool place for several hours to allow the cream to rise to the surface, then heating it either over hot cinders or in a water bath, before a slow cooling. The clots that formed on the top were then skimmed off with a long-handled cream-skimmer, known in Devon as a reamer or raimer. By the mid-1930s, the traditional way of using milk brought straight from the dairy was becoming a rarity in Devon because using a cream separator actively separated the cream from the milk using centrifugal force, which produced far more clotted cream than the traditional method from the same amount of milk. As a farmer’s wife in Poundsgate said, “the separator saves a whole cow!”

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Today, there are two distinct modern methods for making clotted cream. The “float cream method” includes scalding a floating layer of double cream in milk (skimmed or whole) in shallow trays. To scald, the trays are heated using steam or very hot water. After the mixture has been heated for up to an hour it is slowly cooled for 12 hours or more, before the cream is separated and packaged. The “scald cream method” is similar, but the milk layer is removed and a layer of cream which has been mechanically separated to a minimum fat level is used. This cream is then heated in a similar manner, but at a lower temperature and after a set amount of time it is then chilled and packaged.

I used to use a big, non-stick electric wok set on the lowest temperature, fill it with cream and heat gently for several hours until clots formed. Then I would skim them off with a slotted spoon, package can chill them overnight. Then use the clotted cream the next day for a cream tea. It was well worth the effort and the small amount of clotted cream never lasted long.