This ‘blog’ is always prepared to look beyond music by British composers. It is fascinating to look at conductors, soloists and institutions. One of the most venerable of these latter is the Philharmonic Society which was founded in 1813. A major highlight of their history was the welcoming of Sergei Rachmaninoff on 19th April 1899. From a British music point of view, it is interesting to note that the great Scottish composer and academic Sir Alexander Mackenzie was the conductor of the Society at this time. He was noted for introducing many new works – both British and European. Reference is also made to the British composer Luard-Selby in these notes.
The definitive and comprehensive text on this event is Geoffrey Norris’ ‘Rachmaninoff in London’ which was published in The Musical Times (April 1993).
At the end of 1898, Rachmaninoff was invited to play at a London Philharmonic Concert in London the following year. This was to be the composer’s first appearance outside of Russia. The Philharmonic Society had hoped that he would perform his ‘new’ Piano Concerto No.2 however this work was not completed until the following year. In fact Norris points out that the Society minute-books show that this work was expected. The Musical Standard (28 Jan 1899) categorically states that ‘Rachmaninoff will make his first appearance in England, playing his new Pianoforte Concerto and his hackneyed Prelude in C sharp minor, thus in the latter case, settling a vexed question of its proper reading: for as a rule the Prelude is almost unrecognisable, so differently is it played by amateur and professional pianists.’
In return, Rachmaninoff suggested to the Philharmonic Society that was prepared to conduct one of his orchestral pieces. At this time that would have meant the First Symphony, the ‘Prince Rostilav’ Overture, the ‘Caprice bohemian’ or the symphonic poem Utyos ‘The Rock.’
Naturally the Society wanted to hear him play the piano, so a counter suggestion was made that he play his Piano Concerto No.1 which had been written in 1891 (it would be revised in 1917) The composed declined this suggestion, saying that he considered it a student work. A compromise was eventually agreed where he would conduct an orchestral work and play two piano solos.
The concert at the Queen’s Hall on 19 April 1899 therefore included of ‘The Rock ‘which is based on literary themes by Lermontov and Chekhov. Rachmaninoff played his ‘Elegie’ and the ubiquitous Prelude in C# minor, both from the ‘Morceaux de fantaisie’ Op.3. They were performed on a Bechstein piano. Other works included at this concert were the long-forgotten ‘Idyll’ (for small orchestra) by B. Luard-Selby, the Recitative & Cavatina, 'Slowly fades the day’ from Borodin’s Prince Igor with Christanne Andray as soloist. The concert concluded with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 in C minor. Sir Alexander Mackenzie conducted the Philharmonic Orchestra for the remainder of the programme.
Interestingly, Rachmaninoff’s ‘Trio élégiaque' has been performed in London on the previous day and had received less-than-positive reviews. Norris quotes the Daily Telegraph reviewer as saying he 'would burn the scores of half-a-dozen such oddities as the Rachmaninoff Trio, to pre-serve intact the exquisite song-cycle which adorned the second part' which was Liza Lehmann's then popular, but now forgotten, song-cycle In a Persian Garden (1896), It is assumed that the composer did not attend this chamber concert.
There were a number of reviews of the Philharmonic Society concert in the following days. These included The Times, the Daily Mail, the Pall Mall Gazette, the Musical Times and the Musical Standard. It is fair to say the critics were less than enthusiastic about ‘The Rock’. According to Max Harrison’s Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings published in 2008 this was due to a ‘suspicion if not hostility’ regarding anything Russian. It was as if ‘British music was something that needed protecting from anything foreign, especially, it seemed, things Russian. If anything there was a touch of ‘hostility’ rather than the ‘lionisation’ that would follow in coming years.