Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
twenty-four variations on the XXIV. Caprice
for piano and large orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano
London Symphony Orch.
André Previn, cond.
Rachmaninoff spent most of the months of July and August 1934 at his villa on Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. He arrived with the intention of composing a new concertante work for piano and orchestra—it would be his last such music—and did not leave until the project was finished six weeks later.
A partial list of composers who have spun their own yarns on Paganini’s A minor caprice would begin with Schumann and continue through Liszt, Brahms, Boris Blacher, Lutoslawski, George Rochberg, even Andrew Lloyd Webber—and that’s just a few of them. But Rachmaninoff’s treatment of the piece, certainly an unlikely choice of subject matter for a composer already accused of undue deference to tradition, is the best-known of them all.
Across the course of twenty-four variations, with the first variation presented, uniquely, before the statement of the theme, Rachmaninoff infuses Paganini’s melody with the motivically similar Dies irae figure that had long been a musical signature of the Russian titan. The piano writing is highly virtuosic, but more intimately conversant and ensconced within the orchestra than in the concertos. Speaking of the famous XVIII. Variation, a dreamy cantilena based on an inversion of the theme, Rachmaninoff once said “This one is for my agent.”
There is more of America in the Rhapsody than in any other music by the composer, including several nods to Gershwin; the title itself may be tribute to an earlier American Rhapsody. The Dies irae motto is given a Hieronymus Bosch-hits-Broadway dressing at one point, and the harmonies throughout are delicately infused with the sonorities of 1930s jazz.