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Where did Rachmaninov's success come from?

Actually, Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was a bit of an oddity, an anachronism. He bit into the composition style of his great example Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who died in 1893. If we contrast Rachmaninov with some of his contemporaries (Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Strawinsky and overseas Charles Ives, George Antheil and Edgard Varèse), it is only too apparent how conservative the Russian was and how he allowed Romanticism to persist for another 50 years or so when the new age had long since struck.

Rotterdam's Gergyev Festival, which erupts on Thursday 10 September, devotes this edition exclusively to Sergei Rachmaninov. That is not so difficult: the festival, which started as a 10-day marathon in 1996, now lasts only three days. Just enough for a cross-section of the Russian composer's oeuvre. Longer would not make sense. All the symphonies and all the piano concertos are covered, as well as a number of symphonic poems and a small selection of his liturgical music.

Sadly, no opera. This is where the festival sells itself short. The opera 'Aleko' from 1893 is certainly not a bad work and, moreover, has never been performed in our country. By contrast, the list of compositions chosen by the festival is gefundenes Fressen for the average concertgoer. 'Aleko' could have exemplified the vocal manner in which Rachmaninov always arranged his notes and thus offered a different perspective on his over-familiar music. On the other hand, all editions of the Gergiev festival that concentrated on one composer or a group of composers can be counted among the better festivals. As soon as a different kind of theme is broached, the artistic quality always suffers.

So where did that Rachmaninov success come from? Was there always such success? If we are to believe grandson and lifetime overzealous promoter Alexandre, there was never enough attention paid to grandfather's music, even if the 'Vocalise' from TV screens. Standard works on the developmental course of both Romanticism and twentieth-century music treat Rachmaninov only as a footnote. Alexandre even recalled times when his music was called 'café music'. Only general reference works on classical music give the composer any credit.

In any case, what helped was the wonderful film 'Shine' (1996) about the pianist David Helfgott who completely collapsed psychologically while rehearsing and performing the 3e piano concerto. The film makes mention of the unplayable piano concertos no. 2 and 3. Surely Rachmaninov is still seen as the brilliant pianist, more than a great and innovative composer. Quite obvious really. Rachmaninov had huge hands: just covering an octave and a half on the piano is not for everyone. And since small pianos are not made, the myth was soon born. For this music, hefty tats needed, to begin with. Not only did Rachmaninov suffer from depression from time to time, he managed to saddle later generations of pianists with it too. Again, good for a lot of mythology.

What also helped was Rachmaninov's fine sense of melody. This made him a true epigone of Tchaikovsky, although Tchaikovsky was a much more complete and deeper-digging composer than Rachmaninov. The oboe solo in the Second Symphony is one that every orchestral oboist wants in the repertoire. It is also believed that - although the composer never used Russian folk music in any recognisable way - the fact that he left Mother Russia in 1917, never to return there, led him to hide a lot of Russia-referenced nostalgia in his music.

Rachmaninov spent his later life in Hollywood, the epicentre of all entertainment. He wrote two of his most frequently played works there: the ' 'Symphonic Dances' and the 'Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini'. The 4e piano concerto, also from those years, is an enigmatic work that reveals its secrets only after frequent listening, which is perhaps why it is rarely played. With this, it is clear that as soon as it has to put more effort into Rachmaninov's music, the general public immediately drops out.

And that, then, is the bottom line: recognisability, even if we don't know the notes, is the secret behind the success of Rachmaninov's music. And that is why Rachmaninov is a mere footnote in the annals of classical music, despite his current popularity. The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra accounts for most of the concerts. But there is also a performance by the combined orchestra of the Royal Concert College from The Hague and Codarts from Rotterdam, all conducted by Valeri Gergjev. The pianists are not to be missed: Alexei Volodin and the winner of this year's Tchaikofsky Competition, Dmitri Masleev are erbi., Bass Mikhail Petrenko holds a song recital and - almost forgotten - the new age is represented by a world premiere by Vladimir Tarnopolsky, one of Russia's leading composers today.

Rotterdam, de Doelen: Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival. 10 to 12 September. Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Valeri Gergiev; various soloists.

Information: www.gergievfestival.nl

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