Is it possible to overdose on Rachmaninov? Specifically, can one handle a programme made up in its entirely of Rachmaninov’s music for two pianos? I have to confess this somewhat unworthy thought crossed my mind as we approached the interval in this concert which Kathryn Stott and Tim Horton played to an almost completely packed Crucible Playhouse. Too many arpeggiated chords, perhaps? Too many recurring ascending/descending triplet figures? Too many insistent ostinatos? Too much, in the end, of that relentless minor key lugubriousness with which the Rachmaninov-averse are wont to tar his music? Well, by the end of the concert these doubts had been triumphantly laid to rest, after a performance that was surely one of the high points of the 2023 Sheffield Chamber Music Festival. 

Kathryn Stott and Tim Horton
© Music in the Round

Rachmaninov’s Suite no. 1 for Two Pianos (published as his Fantaisie-Tableaux) is an early work, written by the 20-year-old composer and dedicated to the recently-deceased Tchaikovsky. It is little played these days, at least in comparison with the Second Suite for the same forces, and one can hear why. Its four movements are essentially static in conception, depicting contrasting scenes and emotions, from the slow lapping waves beneath a gondola’s oars at dusk to the epic tolling of church bells at Easter, ringing across the frozen Russian landscape, via a dreamy nocturnal tryst and falling lovers’ tears. Stott and Horton were eloquent in lyrical moments, powerful and arresting in the declamatory passages. 

It was, perhaps, to over-egg the pudding to play both suites in the first half of the concert. The second is a markedly superior affair. Coming out the other side of his breakdown that followed the premiere of his First Symphony, this Second Suite carries the same assurance that one hears in the contemporaneous Second Piano Concerto and the Cello Sonata. Stott and Horton were magnificent here, from the driving rhythms of the introductory march to the whirlwind tarantella which concludes the work. Between the two suites came an arrangement by Greg Anderson (of the Anderson-Roe duo) of the famous Vocalise. Wisely choosing to sidestep its four-hands format – I’ve seen Anderson and Roe at work, and they seem able to traverse the keyboard while engaging in a simultaneous game of Twister – Stott and Horton used both available pianos in a performance whose singing lines belied the fact that the piano is, in the end, a percussion instrument.

However, the high point of the programme was the second half’s performance of the Symphonic Dances. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at that private run-through Rachmaninov and Vladimir Horowitz gave of this work soon after its completion. But this concert performance may well have run it close. The composition is surely Rachmaninov’s masterpiece, the distillation of not just the late-Romantic swooning of early Rachmaninov, but also the years of hard-won equilibrium in exile after 1917. Whether one buys the rather eschatological readings of this piece that have been advocated or not, this is a work in which Rachmaninov confronts (and overcomes?) the medieval Dies irae theme that haunts a lot of his work. Still, the Alleluia marking above the quotation from his All-Night Vigil that features near the end should make it clear that there is rejoicing amid this dance of death. Stott and Horton deserved their standing ovation after such a triumphant reading. 

Is it possible to give five stars to a concert which had prompted unworthy thoughts in the mind of the reviewer? Evidently, yes.