Such unlikely bedfellows, you might think, especially from their physical appearances later in life. Yet it was precisely at these stages that depression took a more persistent hold, that the inspiration become sparser - famously no operas from Rossini in the last 39 years of his life, and only five major works from Rachmaninov in the last 25 of his - and also that the quirkiness in what they did compose became more marked. Over the past week I've devoted myself to one or the other - Rossini for the second of my Guillaume Tell classes at the Frontline Club, Rachmaninov for a BBC Music Magazine feature and a pre-performance talk with Vladimir Jurowski at his request before the brilliant finale of his LPO series* matching the best-known works of the composer with the rich and rare.
One element I found the two share in their late(r) works should have been obvious to me but only struck me now: the way they work within conventional harmonic boundaries - essential for Rossini up to a point, almost a point of honour for Rachmaninov as the natural heir of Tchaikovsky living through the 20th century's first three decades of change. It's especially marked with Rossini's last opera and the instrumental pieces how the miniature can be floating along in bel canto or French-Italian manner only to end with a little twist or kick.
Rachmaninov very rarely ends a movement with an obvious gesture; I'm thinking, in the larger scale, of the forlorn descent of the two clarinets at the end of the 'Wedding Bells' sequence in The Bells, but it also applies to many of the songs where the piano coda usually adds something surprising. Never more so than in the rich unfolding of distant harmonies at the end of 'Son' ('Sleep' - or 'Dream'; the Russian word means both). The poem is by Fyodor Sologub (pictured below in 1910 by Serov), so far removed from the world of that bleak novelistic masterpiece The Petty Demon.
I've tried to render its economy in translation:
In the world there is nothing
More desired than sleep.
Enchantment is in it,
It has peace,
It has neither sorrow
Nor laughter on its lips,
And in its fathomless eyes
It has two wide,
Light ones, so light,
Like midnight mist.
No-one knows how it bears us,
Nor where to or on what.
It does not flap its wings
And does not move its shoulders.
A necessary prompt since this performance, which I very much like, by Julia Lezhneva, has no subtitles.
How does Rossini compare? Well, the surprises are often found mid-flow, as in the little woodwind warning that breaks the idyll of the opening chorus in Guillaume Tell; every number in this leisurely first act has something original about it. But to find a song with a novel progression at the end, how about this little gem to which there is more than at first meets the ear. The poet is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, no less, a connection with last week's Guillaume Tell session, for which I unearthed a consummate French horn performance of a shepherd's Ranz des vaches known as the 'Rousseau' because the Genevan transcribed it. You can barely make him out in this painting by Dunouy of the master meditating in the park at La Rochecordon
but it chimes with the mood of 'Ariette à l'ancienne':
How the day seems long
When I am far from you!
Is now nothing to me.
The greenest grove
When you come not there
Is a mere wild place
Without appeal for me.
Rossini repeats the first stanza thrice and the second twice, not always to the same music. But it's the chromatic writing at the end which made me sit up when I was half-listening to later Rossini melodies on a Rossini recital recorded by Cecilia Bartoli back in 1990. The performance on YouTube, with a near-invisible Gyorgy Fischer at the piano, is somewhat later.
Rossini's originality was hard at work in those later decades - exercising harmonic ingenuity around one or two notes from the voice, and having fun with nigh-on 50 settings of Metastasio's very standard sentiments in 'Mi lagnerò tacendo'. I always think it's a shame that Hofmannsthal didn't choose this rather than 'Di rigori armato il seno' for the Italian tenor's aria in Der Rosenkavalier, but the latter is also the text for the Italian singer in the 'Ballet des Nations' in Molière/Lully's Le bourgeois gentilhomme, more relevant to what came next in the Strauss/Hofmannsthal partnership.
Anyway, here's Ceci singing three settings with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, respectively dark, poised and cheeky. La Bartoli's (over) play in the less-than-minute-long finale may cause listeners to miss the rarity of the form - a 'Sorzico', Spanish dance in 5/4, so a very early use of the metre in a classical work, to set alongside the Wedding Chorus in Glinka's A Life for the Tsar - and the spiciness of the vocal twists.
Wednesday night's Rachmaninov concert started with transcriptions none of us had heard before: orchestrations of four early piano pieces by a name hitherto unknown to me, Yury Butsko, comrade of Sviridov and Shchedrin, and arrangements of 10 short songs made for the great Ivan Kozlovsky in the early 1960s by Jurowski's grandfather, also Vladimir - thus enabling me to have chaired two talks featuring three generations of Jurowskis (unforgettable, though sadly by accident unrecorded by the LPO, the chat with his conductor father Mikhail before a blistering performance of Schnittke's First Symphony).
It was news to me how Rachmaninov's non grata status in the Soviet Union began to change with his financial support for the war effort, causing The Bells of all works - Jurowski's absolute favourite for depth and range - to be performed on the eve of the notorious 1948 show trials of 'formalism' in music, though without the organ.
I also nodded vigorously at Vladimir's assertion that the fourth piece arranged by Butsko, 'Easter', the finale of the Suite No. 1 for two pianos, is a precursor of the Minimalists. The basis is a tritone-haunted bell ostinato, as in the Coronation Scene of Musorgsky's Boris Godunov, broken occasionally by a famous 'Christ is risen' Orthodox chant. It's a desert island track as played on my recording with Argerich and Rabinovich - still more amazing than the Butsko transcription - but I was pleased to come across this recording by Anastasia and Lyubov Gromoglasova. Odd that the camera only concentrates on one of the sisters, but that gives you a good idea how the lines are parcelled out.
Any other connection between Rachmaninov and Rossini? Respighi, who transcribed five of the great Etudes-Tableaux and turned Rossini's 'sins of my old age' into the brilliant potpourri ballet La boutique fantasque, which I've been listening to today alongside Britten's Rossinian dance suites the Soirées and Matinées Musicales (the Matinées begin with instrumental innovations on the Pas de six in Act 1 of Guillaume Tell, and end with something outlandishly Brittenesque). I want to get to know Respighi's sources, because if they contain anything like the number of dissonances and twists that appear in the ballet, they'll be more oddities to add to the Rossinian collector's corner.
A last word about two recordings I couldn't be without featuring the music of both composers. After the concert I went back to playing the two versions of Rachmaninov's Op. 39 Etudes Tableaux which kept neck and neck at the end of my Radio 3 Building a Library on this fascinating sequence. I still find it the greatest piano opus in Rachmaninov's susbstantial invention, and I still don't want to choose between Rustem Hayroudinoff and Alexander Melnikov - each has the edge on the other in certain numbers, but both are teeming with imagination throughout.
Yet as a disc Melnikov's is probably No.1 on the Rach shelf (I'd also need the Kondrashin double of The Bells and Symphonic Dances, probably the Argerich/Rabinovich double act too). That's because it breaks up piano works - the concluding opus is the spellbinding late Variations on a Theme of Corelli - with the last set of songs, composed for Nina Koshetz shortly before Rachmaninov left Russia in 1917. It was here I first heard and fell in love with 'Son'. And the equivalent, much darker and more expensive masterpiece in the piano output, Op. 39 No. 7 in C minor, probably has its spacious apogee in Melnikov's hands (not bad considering Richter is high up among the competition).
I blush to confess that the collection of songs and scenes middle and late from Cecilia Bartoli and the underrated Charles Spencer (once Christa Ludwig's pianist of choice, now Anne Schwanewilms's) wasn't one I'd turned to much until the Guillaume Tell classes. And then I've played it again and again since. The six 'Mi lagnerò tacendo' choices are all fascinating, 'L'orpheline du Tirol' is bigger than I thought, and the gran scena at the end, Giovanna d'Arco is an amiable stunner.
*Before you accuse me of reviewing a concert in which I played a small preliminary part, let me explain that I asked all my Arts Desk colleagues to step in, met with no success, thought I wouldn't write about it, but then realised that it was too vital and unforgettable an event to ignore. My feeling about writing about the work of performers I know and like is no shame, because I came to know them exactly through being an admirer of their art in the first place. And you can find reviews where I was less than enthusiastic about a Jurowski interpretation.