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Liebesfreud: Music

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943); Two Movements for String Quartet (1889): Romance (Andante espressivo) and Scherzo (Allegro)

With the exception of two magnificent works for unaccompanied choir, everything Rachmaninoff wrote that was important—to him and to us—involved the piano, the orchestra, or both.
Clearly, he expressed himself most naturally when there were plenty of notes at his disposal and it should hardly surprise us that he showed little interest in the textures that result from the scratching and scraping of a few string players. (In 1896, he took another stab at a String Quartet, but both surviving movements are incomplete.)

Nevertheless, if this little work will hardly affect our view of its composer, it is very beautiful music. I am, I confess, a huge Rachmaninoff fan, and while I will defend unto death the greatness of such works as the 3rd Piano Concerto, the Paganini Rhapsody, “The Bells”, and the Symphonic Dances, I feel that he was, above all, a supreme lyric poet. It is in his piano pieces (the Preludes, the Études-tableaux) and his songs—more than seventy rapturously beautiful settings of Russian verse from Pushkin to Myakovsky and Balmont—that his genius really blazes.
Coincidentally or not, both these movements—written when he was a student at the Moscow Conservatory (he graduated in 1892)—are cast in what is sometimes called “song form”. This resembles a sandwich: a fairly complete melodic entity on top and on the bottom, with something contrasting in the middle and, on occasion (on both occasions here), a significant addition or afterthought. (Cole slaw? French fries?)
The melodies are wonderful, the atmospheres (restrained, aristocratic melancholy; gentle humor and charm; full-throated lyricism) intensely vivid, and the composer’s mastery—of part-writing and of the harmonic vocabulary of Russian (Muscovite, really) Romanticism—is truly astounding. (Rachmaninoff must have been the most prodigiously accomplished, cultivated 16-year-old since Mendelssohn.)
If the results suggest Tchaikovsky, it’s Tchaikovsky on a very good day.