Mahler and Rachmaninoff: A Beginner’s Guide

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As our end of year Symphony Orchestra concert at Cadogan Hall is fast approaching, we thought we’d give you a bit of context about the pieces being performed: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 1 in F-Sharp Minor and Mahler’s Symphony No 5 in C-Sharp Minor.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 1 in F-Sharp Minor

Written at the tender age of 17, whilst he was still at the Moscow Conservatory, the first piano concerto is a virtuosic work, which shows a young student influenced by the likes of Tchaikovsky and Grieg.

Pianist Nikolai Lugansky describes each Rachmaninoff piano concerto as having its own rich history. The first probably has the strangest story: the work was revised extensively some 26 years after its initial version and Rachmaninoff by then had written the second and third piano concertos, as well as two symphonies. Three main themes were kept, but the orchestration and form changed dramatically. So we’re effectively hearing his fourth piano concerto.

The first piano concerto has been noted for its obvious influences from Grieg and Tchaikovsky. Interestingly, student composers were usually encouraged to base first works on a specific model. In Rachmaninoff’s case, this was the Grieg piano concerto and the opening brass fanfare and subsequent dramatic octave passages in the first movement reflect this. There’s also been parallels drawn between the opening horn solo in the second movement and the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony.

What does sound characteristically like Rachmaninoff though, are the beautiful and distinctly Russian-like melodies performed throughout – something that really came into its own in his second piano concerto. Rachmaninoff once said: “I am a Russian composer and the land of my birth has inevitably influenced my temperamental outlook.” This is clearly not an exception in his first piano concerto.

Mahler’s Symphony No 5 in C-Sharp Minor

Despite being the first symphony since his Symphony No 1 to not use voices, Mahler’s fifth stretches the orchestra to its limits in an epic work lasting over an hour.

Written between 1901 and 1902, the piece is structured unusually in five movements (symphonies conventionally only have four). A particularly famous passage is the opening trumpet fanfare in the first movement. The first trumpet performs a triplet motive around the key of C-sharp minor, starting the orchestra as it means to go on.

The symphony is not just loud and epic though – its fourth movement is often regarded as one of the most beautiful pieces in the orchestral repertoire. Orchestrated entirely on strings, it was used in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice, and as such has introduced a wide varying audience to Mahler’s work.

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