Chapter Fifty-Two of The Haunted Heaven: Sergei and Olga
By Michael Moriarty
While pondering Sergei Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony and while musing over what my tribute to that composer might be? Dreams, after my First Symphony's tribute to Béla Bartók, plans for my own second or third symphony tributes are coming to fruition.
During these meditations, what appears to demand my musical attention is the conflict that such freedom-loving artists – Bartók, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky – would inevitably have had with the likes of a Marxist President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama.
The unavoidable battles their souls would have had with Chicago's "C.O." or "Community Organizer".
President Obama is Harvard's second political wizard after Prof. Henry Kissinger. The not-so-good Doctor brought us his philosophy of real politik. That political intellectual's visions of a New World Order.
Out of these New World Order prophecies, all my thoughts and feelings begin to rise up in much the same way Rachmaninoff's strings swell in a mild tidal wave during that Second Symphony's first five minutes.
In a yearning for some Divine Guidance.
Note that when Rachmaninoff's brass are subservient to his divine strings?!
All still seems possible.
However, that same brass, when unleashed, carry a frightening subtext.
The Soviet, Red brass balls of totalitarianism and tyranny's inevitably homicidal solution to everything.
No, we don't hear anything quite like that in Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony.
The strings agitate, grow insistent with even the tympani's help … but, then again, they subside into the relatively peaceful pools and eddies of an oceanic sound only possible with what I believe to be Russia's most prophetic composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Rachmaninoff left his homeland to the will of Stalin's Soviet dictatorship.
He came to America with the same yearning hope that Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky arrived with.
Before that, however, Rachmaninoff knew in his soul where the destiny of Russian millions lay: in the iron-like fists of a coming tyranny. Rachmaninoff's strings within his Second Symphony are hurtling toward us like the increasingly uneasy waves of a storm front.
Still the brass are subservient to this message of the strings: "Heads up! Death is on the way!!"
With Rachmaninoff's most unsettling piece, Isle of The Dead, he certainly knew something about the darkest corners of Dante's Inferno.
The Second Symphony's storm in the first movement finds its heights and then ebbs away. We return to the earlier theme, bringing the mysterious comfort of yearning and, yes, prayer.
Having survived the storm, we pray.
We pray with considerably more urgency and depth than we had before the storm.
This, my dear readers, is the divinely sacred secret of Rachmaninoff!
His music is the warmest and most cathartic lesson in prayer that I know.
There is, after this first movement's prayers of gratitude, warnings of even more trouble coming.
That is how the movement ends!
With a clear warning!!
Did Rachmaninoff know, when he composed this, that the Russian, Bloody Red Revolution was coming?
Of course he did!!
Sergei had moved to Dresden, Germany with his family to not only compose his Second Symphony but also to summon up from Dante's Inferno his own prophetic Isle of The Dead.
Andrew Böcklin's Isle of The Dead (Circa 1880)
Rachmaninoff's soul, if not his conscious mind, knew what was coming.
What must he have thought as he composed, contemplated and conducted his Second Symphony and his Isle of The Dead?!
Russia's still ongoing tragedy?!
Rachmaninoff's creations, from 1906-1908, are profoundly relevant to the Free World's plight today.
Is Rachmaninoff's Isle of The Dead really about an island, or, rather like all of his music, the revelation of a sea, an ocean surrounding the horrid events of history?
Yes, he is an unabashed, unapologetic, profoundly realistic Romantic!
His Isle of The Dead is as much the agonized cry of "Why Death At All?!"
as it is a portrait of Death itself.
Why was Rachmaninoff moved, in 1906-8, away from his homeland to ponder Foreboding and Death to such degree?
From the link marking of 18:50 on, Isle of The Dead returns quietly, meditatively, painfully and most reluctantly toward a final restatement of Rachmaninoff's unforgettably foreboding theme of death's pilgrimage.
The fruit on the tree of not only Rachmaninoff's survival but his perfect instinct to emigrate from Russia to America brings us to what I consider the greatest reward of his entire career!
A performance of his Third Piano Concerto, my favorite of his concertos, not by the renowned Vladimir Horowitz, but, and most ironically by a brilliant, generously gifted and warmly romantic female pianist, Olga Kern.
Here, at the Van Cliburn Competition, she is with the perfect but unnamed conductor and orchestra, performing Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto.
Please forgive the glitches in transmission.
Your forgiveness will be greatly rewarded!!
Within that dauntingly difficult masterpiece is all the joy and gratitude for life Sergei Rachmaninoff must have found in America.
This masterpiece of 1909 could not have been composed or performed under the Soviet Union.
Tyranny would not have allowed such freedom and ecstasy to be born, let alone be allowed to live.
You hear within it, of course, the Rachmaninoff bassi, his quietly present, bass strings rumbling beneath the composer's bliss. Forever centering his creations somewhere deeply into the bottom of the sea.
No pianist, to my mind, has so captured the divine, inner sensitivities of Rachmaninoff's piano settings with more loving intensity than Olga Kern.
The entire piece in her hands becomes such an organically vibrant whole, a living thing unto itself, carrying her and her audience into emotional heights and depths rarely found in the 20th Century. So many efforts have been made to destroy the Romantic School of Art.
God bless Olga Kern for not letting that happen!
God Bless Sergei Rachmaninoff for making this glimpse of Olga Kern's own genius possible!!
Hopefully you listened to her performance to the very end
The tumultuous applause given her
Both by the audience
Not only praise from Caesar
God as well!
Yes, indeed, when I fall in love with an artists' gifts?! I'm shameless.
No, I don't expect the person to actually be his or her artistry! That would be beyond naïve.
When an artist becomes another artist's creation, he or she disappears. Performed with such seemingly destined depth, grace and brilliance? The piece itself seems to have possessed the artist rather than the other way around. Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto seems to have been born forever looking for Olga Kern to perform it.
The levels of her interpretation rise so freely out of a subconscious corner of her mind and soul that she doesn't so much play this concerto as breath it. With her interpretation, then the concerto itself must have possessed Rachmaninoff in the same way his creation possessed Olga.
What then do we have?
Divinity. A sacredness so beyond even the normal concert hall that Church prayer itself seems dwarfed by it.
Oh, I know how this sounds utterly "over-the-top" … but, please bear with me. I've spent my life watching, reading, hearing, applauding, working with and battling with some of the finest performing artists in the world.
My soul has been spent on its knees before music of the greatest pianists in the world, from Rubenstein to Horowitz, Art Tatum to Keith Jarrett.
Rachmaninoff's Third is not merely a piano concerto. It is The Divine Monstrosity of Piano Concertos!!
Its size, technical complexity, profound height of ambition, and in Olga Kern's hands, the depth of not only her grasp and ownership but, most of all, her instinctive understanding of what this creation can mean to the human soul.
Somehow God brought her the perfect conductor and supporting cast, as they say!
My entire childhood and, yea, my infancy was a warm-up for this performance. Every Sunday my father would put on either Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony or his Second Piano Concerto.
Because of those huge sounds in my littlest of ears, I believed that without a doubt I had born into heaven itself!!
Little did I know that the Third Piano Concerto was yet to enter my Holy of Holies!!!
Why it had been postponed in my life, I have no idea.
Now, listening to Olga Kern's interpretation of it for the hundredth time, even with the glitches in its Youtube transmission … this is beyond a collector's item. It is, for me, the musical equivalent of Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel!
I've been a live performer for over forty years.
Heights this high, reached with such angelic perfection and arising out of such depths of the human soul while encompassing an oceanic-sized range of thought and feeling?!
The only thing in my mind that her performance of "Rach Three" might fall short of is Michelangelo's Pieta.
Even then, she and Rachmaninoff together carry me to the same, sacred places. As Shakespeare's Hamlet might say, "I shall not look, see nor hear Kern's Rachmaninoff, nor experience its like again."
To dismiss such heights of human perfection is your loss, not mine.
Michael Moriarty is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor who starred in the landmark television series Law and Order from 1990 to 1994. His recent film and TV credits include The Yellow Wallpaper, 12 Hours to Live, Santa Baby and Deadly Skies. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.