Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini

Lukas Geniusas, piano
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Charles Dutoit, conductor
Recorded live on 16 Feb 2017 at the Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore.

Many are the compositions based on the last of Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Violin Solo. Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Lutosławski, Schnittke and even Andrew Lloyd Webber, among many, have fallen under the spell of the irresistible tune. But best known of all is surely Rachmaninov’s interpretation, his last work for piano and orchestra, written in 1934 when he was 61. Wit, charm, romance, rhythmic verve and masterly orchestration combine in what many listeners consider to be one of his finest works. The world premiere was given on 7 November, 1934 in Baltimore by the Philadelphia Orchestra with the composer as soloist.

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is not really a rhapsody at all. However, one might associate the piano soloist with the role of the ancient Greek rhapsode, the specially trained singer or reciter of epic poems. Additional meanings have been associated over the years with the word “rhapsody.” We might now define rhapsody as a high-charged instrumental work in irregular, free or improvisatory form. Though generally in a single movement, the rhapsody usually consists of several linked sections.

Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody conforms to this definition in most respects, but it is definitely not free or improvisatory in form. It follows a very clear-cut design, namely, a set of 24 variations. The work begins with the curiously “misplaced” first variation (following an eight-bar introduction); only then do we hear the theme in its original, intact form, played by violins with piano accentuations. Variations 2-5 all retain rhythmic tautness and drive. Only in Variation 6 does a more rhythmically free and sentimental tone creep in. A new theme enters at Variation 7, that old funeral chant, the “Dies irae,” which Rachmaninov had incorporated into so many of his works. In fact though, there is a melodic kinship between the chant theme and Paganini’s. The “Dies irae” returns in Variation 10, a grotesque march. In between (Variations 8 and 9), a demonic quality if introduced, especially in Variation 9, with its col legno, tappings and frenzied rhythmic conflict between orchestra and soloist.

Variation 11 is essentially a highly florid cadenza with a true rhapsodic flavour to it. Two variations in D minor follow ̶ one a nostalgic, wistful minuet set to Paganini’s fragmented theme; the other a sturdy pronouncement of the theme, still in triple meter, in a more straightforward presentation. Variations 14 and 15 are in F major, with the latter almost entirely for piano alone. Dark, ominous, even ghostly stirrings seem to emanate from Variation 16, in the key of B-flat minor. The scoring is of chamber-music delicacy and transparency, as opposed to the block-like orchestral writing of most previous variations. The next variation does nothing to lighten the oppressive mood, as the soloist gropes in strange, remote harmonic regions.

Suddenly, as if emerging into the light of day, we hear the sounds of an old friend softly intoned: that famous 18th variation in that most romantic of keys, D-flat major. This lush, glorious melody is no intrusion, for like the “Dies irae,” it too bears a melodic relationship to the Paganini theme; in fact, it is almost an inverted image of it. The music, from now on in the initial key of A minor, proceeds swiftly to its conclusion, each variation more scintillating than the last. Brief cadenzas conclude Variations 22 and 23; Variation 24 leads directly into the coda. The “Dies irae” blares out full force in the brass. The gathering momentum and dazzling passage work for the soloist lead one to expect a conclusion of overwhelming bravura and force. Indeed, this expectation is very nearly fulfilled, but at the last moment, Rachmaninov pulls back and, as if with a wicked chuckle, ends his Rhapsody with a final, lost fragment of the memorable theme.