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Trio élégiaque No. 2, in D-minor               Sergei Rachmaninov

I. Moderato
II. Quasi variazione
III. Allegro risoluto

By age 20, Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) had a successful opera, Aleko, behind him. He had conducting engagements and was widely regarded as a leading young pianist and composer. In the fall of 1893, he showed his tone poem, The Rock, to Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky admired the work and expressed interest in conducting its premiere in Moscow.

Then Tchaikovsky died suddenly, an event that marked Rachmaninov’s three-year slide into depression. The very day Rachmaninov heard the news, he started composing the Trio élégiaque No. 2 as a memorial to Tchaikovsky. He took Tchaikovsky’s own trio elegy in memoriam Nikolai Rubinstein, from 1882, as a loose model. By all accounts, Rachmaninov composed the trio in a white heat of grief. He told a friend that he “trembled over every phrase.” The 46-minute elegy, in its overwhelming passion, bears that out.

No triumph at the end. No salvation. No resignation. The trio comes laden with surpluses of gloom, violence, brooding lyricism, unquenchable restlessness. It is the product of an overheated young Romantic heart and imagination consumed with the need to express inner turmoil.

The tolling of bells, a constant in Rachmaninov’s music, rises again and again from the bowels of the piano. The strings cry out in lament after lament. A funeral march at the outset establishes not only the mood but the basic material: a chromatic tumble, C to A, heard in various guises throughout the piece.

The paroxysms of pain resolve only into moments of static exhaustion. Fermatas, tempo and meter changes, gradual and sudden shifts of mood abound. This music does not play itself. The right notes are not enough, although simply hitting the notes is a formidable task.

To fully realize this artifact of the purest Romanticism, the players must absorb those notes and enter the fevered brain and heart of a sensitive young genius who feels as if the world had collapsed upon him.

                   Tom Strini. Historical sources: Radio Swiss online database on Rachmaninov; Alyson McLamore’s program notes for the trio.

Bruch: String Quintet No. 2 in E flat

 I.Andante con moto
II. Allegro
III. Andante con moto
IV- Allegro ma non troppo vivace

For a Romantic composer, Max Bruch (1838-1920) led an undramatic life. His mother was a singer. His father, a lawyer, became a high official in the Cologne police department. At 9, Max composed a song as a birthday gift to his mother. His parents encouraged his musical pursuits. His early teacher, Ferdinand Hiller, was in a position to nurture his budding career. A family of paper magnates took an interest and became patrons. He married Clara Tuczek, a singer, in 1881. They had a daughter. Clara died in 1919. Max was buried next to her a year later.

No torrid affairs, no brutal family life, no musical feuds, no poverty, no absinthe, no opium. Bruch’s biggest adventure was a three-year stint as music director of the Liverpool Philharmonic. Otherwise, he held a variety of respectable conducting posts around Germany. He settled into a professorship in Berlin in 1891 and stayed on until retirement in 1910.

During his life, Bruch was known primarily for choral music. Today, we know him almost exclusively for his Violin Concerto No. 1 (he never understood why his second and third concerti failed to catch on) and the Kol Nidre, Opus 47. (Bruch wasn’t Jewish. Still, Opus 47 got him into posthumous trouble with the Nazis.)

Bruch might have been the last in the dwindling line of German Romantics who took their cues from Mendelssohn and Brahms rather than Liszt and Wagner. He was old-fashioned in the prime of his career, and downright antique late, when Schoenberg and Stravinsky came into vogue.

The 17-minute Quintet No. 2, in four movements, sums it up: Brahmsian shadings of harmony, straightforward rhythm, fine craft, a hymn-like movement, an overall aura of dignified warmth, the noble pose with a single tear on the cheek.

                  Tom Strini. Source: Wikipedia article on Max Bruch.