Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The remarkable composer and virtuoso pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) wrote five works for piano and orchestra. The first four were his piano concertos.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in F♯ minor, Op. 1 (1891; revised 1917)

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1901)

Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909)

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40 (1926; revised 1941)

His 2nd and 3rd piano concertos are especially beautiful, and are among the finest examples of this genre in the entire repertory.

Then, in 1934, eight years after his final piano concerto, he wrote his final work for piano and orchestra, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It is a set of 24 variations in a single movement lasting 23 to 25 minutes. Its point of departure is the last of the 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, written between 1802 and 1817 by the great violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840). Here is a performance of Caprice No. 24.

Kyoko Yonemoto playing Caprice No. 24 in A minor by Niccolò Paganini

And, oh, what Rachmaninoff does with this theme by Paganini! Energetic, scintillating, lush, virtuosic—these are just a few of the words that describe this incredibly dynamic and exciting work. It is the perfect introduction to Rachmaninoff’s music, and arguably his finest work—at least in terms of what he accomplishes in a mere two dozen minutes.

There are many fine recordings of this remarkable piece. I have several. Here they are, in order of duration.

23:00 Gary Graffman (1928-), New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

23:01 Cecile Licad (1961-), Chicago Symphony, Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

23:16 Adilia Alieva (living; birth year unknown), Orchestra Sinfonica do Samremo, Walter Proost (living; birth year unknown)

23:36 Vladimir Ashkenazy (1937-), London Symphony, André Previn (1929-2019)

23:44 Stephen Hough (1961-), Dallas Symphony, Andrew Litton (1959-)

24:56 Daniil Trifonov (1991-), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (1975-)

As you can see even from this small sample, a piece of music can be played with widely varying tempos and, of course, interpretations. The Trifonov recording is the latest addition to my collection, and you’ll note that it is a full 1m12s longer than the next longest interpretation, another great recording by pianist Stephen Hough.

I was bowled over by this Trifonov recording, and it is my current favorite. There is so much to savor here, and yet I never get the sense that the tempo is too slow. Time is certainly relative when it comes to music!

Give this recording of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini a listen! Truly outstanding.

Deutsche Grammophon 479 4970 GH

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