The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center celebrates Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 150th birthday with programs on October 29 and November 4, 2023. I spoke to pianist and CMS Co-Artistic Director Wu Han and soprano Erika Baikoff as they prepare for these concerts exploring Rachmaninoff’s dual legacy as a pianist and a composer at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Our conversations are condensed and edited here.
Jack Slavin: How did you select the pieces for the two Rachmaninoff programs?
Wu Han: The programs were tied together from two points of view. For the first, Rachmaninoff: The Composer, we wanted to show his Russian heritage. It includes his mentors Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, and acknowledges his love of Russian song repertoire. The program will culminate with his Trio élégiaque, a tribute to the old masters.
We approached the second program, Rachmaninoff: The Pianist, as building toward his Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos—pianists’ heaven! For pianists, when we hear Rachmaninoff’s name, our ears get goosebumps; I can’t describe to you the pure joy of playing his music and hearing an abundance of sound from your own fingers. We wanted to showcase his virtuosity as a pianist and a composer; he knew so much about the piano and how to use it to create a sonic world. When we thought about how to get to the Suite No. 2, the first piece that came to mind was Tchaikosvky’s Suite from The Nutcracker. Rachmaninoff was very much influenced by Tchaikovsky, and The Nutcracker is just spectacular in showing off Russian technique. I also wanted to show how different cultures of which Rachmaninoff was aware treat two-piano music. In the Germanic tradition, for two-piano music, the Mozart sonata is unbeatable; in France, Debussy is king; and for the American perspective, we picked Bolcom’s The Serpent’s Kiss.
What is unique about playing in a two-piano ensemble?
Wu Han: We pianists are very lonely animals. We practice millions of notes by ourselves and rarely have the opportunity to gather. It’s a tradition at CMS that every few years, we do a multiple-piano program. And I can tell you, you’ll never see such a happy group of people. We’re all piano nerds, talking about the things only pianists talk about and exchanging ideas. To play two-piano music, it takes friendship and a lot of trust. You have to sit across from each other and pay full attention; you can’t be in your own world. It takes us out of our basements, our practice rooms, and lets us make music with other pianists. And to celebrate Rachmaninoff, I have to celebrate as a pianist.
Erika, how did you select the group of songs on the first program?
Erika Baikoff: My biggest desire was to share with the American audience some Russian music written by composers other than the already well-known ones, such as Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. Of course, these two are perhaps the pillars of Russian music, but there are so many other composers who have developed the richness of Russian music, particularly Russian song, through their sentimental and often simple melodies that give room for authentic expression of the text. We rarely hear these composers in the US, so I feel honored to share their music with our audiences.
I also chose music based on the poetry that played a big part in my upbringing. For instance, the first song—Balakirev’s “The Goldfish’s Song”—is a fairytale my grandmother would often recite to me before bed. Russian authors have also been a major part of my life. My grandmother shared poems by Pushkin with me when I was little, and as I grew older, I became interested in Tolstoy, so I have included selections with their lyrics in the program as well.
What sets Russian art song apart from its Western European counterparts? What role did Rachmaninoff play in its development?
Baikoff: I think there’s a more dramatic expression of emotion in Russian music. Often very melancholic and profound, it gives more freedom for the performer to pour all of their life experiences into it. When we perform the great German or Austrian composers, for instance, there is a lot of strict adherence to steady and precise tempos and rhythm. In Russian music, I allow myself a bit more freedom to make the interpretation unique to my voice and psychology.
I think Rachmaninoff gave Russian art song the same level of importance as it had in other languages. Before Rachmaninoff, I would say most Russian composers focused on the “bigger” genres of classical music, such as orchestral and operatic works. Rachmaninoff put just as much care into leaving us a wide variety of song repertoire. I think he enjoyed the intimate connection between piano and voice and developed his style in this more private and easily transportable genre of classical music.
Rachmaninoff’s relationship with his native Russia was a complicated one; he fled in in 1917 after his property was seized by the Bolsheviks, lived the rest of his life isolated abroad with a perpetual sense of nostalgia for the late-imperial Russian “Silver Age,” and experienced a resurgence of patriotism at the onset of World War II. The geopolitical landscape has changed since then, but the broad themes of immigration, exile, dissent, loneliness, nostalgia, and ambivalent national and cultural identity are still very much alive in our society. Can you speak to the relevance Rachmaninoff’s experience today?
Baikoff: I think his social and political doubts and isolation are absolutely one reason Rachmaninoff exemplifies music’s power to connect humanity. Of course, his nationality is Russian, but he really has a deeper understanding of the wider world in his music. As humans, we search for connection with others on our journey through life, but ultimately we are alone responsible for our destiny. The search for inner peace in the midst of outward turmoil that we hear in his music is sure to touch every listener.
I think this is also the reason I am so personally attracted to his music. Having grown up in a Russian household that left the Soviet Union as soon as it collapsed, I too struggle with defining my cultural identity. In someways, I feel very “Russian,” with great respect for Russian culture, discipline, and brutal honesty. In other ways, I feel very “American”—open-minded, optimistic, free to be an individual. When I sing Rachmaninoff, or any Russian composer, I try not to listen to too many recordings of Russian singers in order to bring my own interpretation, sound color, and flexibility to the music.
Wu Han: Yes, his relationship with Russia was very complicated, as it is for many people these days. Russian people are very passionate; their feeling of connection to their motherland will always be there, even through horrendous political situations. You can say this about Rachmaninoff, but also many other Russian musicians, artists, and writers—Rostropovich, Prokofiev, Solzhenitsyn, to name a few. There is something about that Russian temperament, that soul; the environment is so harsh and the culture is so rich—it shapes them all.
For me, I can understand a situation where the government does what it does and the people do what they need to do in order to survive. But we can still express our deepest feelings through music. Art forms without words have the advantage of a wide range of interpretations, including dissent.
Chamber music is a very refreshing, democratic environment; nobody is the boss in this music. We all need to communicate, make constructive suggestions, and support each other onstage, otherwise the whole thing falls apart. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, especially in today’s environment.
Rachmaninoff said of the more experimental composers of his time, “The new kind of music seems to come not from the heart, but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel.” Ironically, he was shunned by critics for this very reason; his music was seen as a relic of the Romantic era, lacking innovation and holding on to the tonal conventions of the past. And yet, 150 years after his birth, Rachmaninoff remains a respected and beloved composer. Could it be that we—musicians, critics, academics—are too eager to dismiss beauty as an aesthetic value?
Baikoff: Absolutely. When I was younger, I was constantly searching for new, very brainy, atonal compositions to indulge in a more “intellectual” side of music. However, I have learned that there is just as much worth and intellect in all that is beautiful. There is a reason why composers like Mozart, Schubert, and of course, Rachmaninoff, are cherished by generations of musicians and non-musicians all over the world. I still love to explore contemporary music. But, at the moment, we have enough “ugliness” in the world; sometimes it’s okay to respond to it with beautiful music.
Wu Han: I think it’s crazy! Many so-called experts during Rachmaninoff’s lifetime predicted that he would be quickly forgotten because he lacked the innovation of Stravinsky or Schoenberg. You can say he’s old-fashioned, but that harmonic structure, that unbelievable understanding of how to use the hand—even if his music is difficult, it fits every muscle. Not only was he a great musician, he was also a great performer who understood timing, how to get people to cry, to feel the joy of music. His music has that sensation of going straight into your soul. Very few composers were able to write such unforgettable melodies; for that, Rachmaninoff will never go away.