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Music to rival the Himalayas

Is Classical Music being written today? Yes. Sort of.

What is being composed today--and for most of the 20th Century--are less ambitious, shorter works, not the grand statements of Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner. It’s more like what Aaron Copland composed--well-conceived, sometimes dissonant, sometimes melodic, scaled down pieces--rolling hills compared to the soaring peaks of the 19th-Century music.

There are exceptions, of course, and all are scores by Russian composers: Sergei Prokofiev, Dimitri Shostakovich, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Each have interesting stories to tell, especially Prokofiev and Shostakovich, who had to deal with the insanity of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Of the three, Rachmaninoff (who departed Russia before the insanity began) wrote the grandest, most melodic scores.

As one of the 20th Century’s greatest concert pianists, Rachmaninoff composed piano concertos that showed off his prodigious talent at the keyboard. His Piano Concerto Nos. 2 and 3 are logical progressions of the concertos Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky composed, with big themes that show off the pianist’s skill.

They’re not easy pieces to master. Vladimir Ashkenazy, unrivaled at playing Chopin, has recorded Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto three times and, according to the Penguin Guide to Classical Music, still hasn’t gotten it right. Two pianists who absolutely own this piece are Russian Vladimir Horowitz, and American Van Cliburn.

Cliburn’s mastery of Rachmaninoff’s third concerto at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow won the Gold Medal. (The judges’ decision to award the Gold Medal to an American at the height of the Cold War, meant Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev had to approve the decision, which he did. He too was a big fan of “Vanya” as the Russians affectionately called the American pianist).

Rachmaninoff wrote four piano concertos, plus “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” (his unofficial fifth piano concerto), and three symphonies. You want music that rivals the Himalayas? Rachmaninoff is your man. Like Tchaikovsky, themes from his scores are borrowed liberally by Hollywood.

On the list of 50 greatest composers, Rachmaninoff ranks 26.


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