Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born April 1, 1873, in either Oneg or Semyonovo, Russia, and died March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California. He composed his Second Piano Concerto in 1900-01: the second and third movements in 1900, drawing on material written up to a decade earlier, and the first movement in 1901, completed on May 4. It was also premiered piecemeal: the second and third movements on December 15, 1900, in Moscow, the complete three-movement concerto on November 9, 1901, also in Moscow. Alexander Siloti conducted and the composer was the soloist on both occasions. The first US performance was given on November 18, 1905, in New York, with pianist Raoul Pugno and Modest Altschuler conducting the Russian Symphony Society. Henri Deering was the first pianist to play the work with the San Francisco Symphony; that was in February 1926, with Alfred Hertz conducting. In the most recent performances here, in November 2007, Lise de la Salle was soloist and James Gaffigan conducted. The score bears a dedication “To Monsieur N. Dahl.” The concerto calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, and strings. Performance time: about thirty minutes.
In 1897, the prominent Russian newspaper Novosti carried a review that savaged Sergei Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony. Here’s a sample: “If there were a conservatory in Hell, if one of its talented students were instructed to write a program symphony on the ‘Seven Plagues of Egypt,’ and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would bring delight to the inhabitants of Hell.” Those words must have stung all the more coming from César Cui, a more senior composer and a member of the band of Russian musical nationalists who staked a place in music-history books as “The Five” or “The Mighty Handful.” Other reviews were less vicious, but they were not much more positive. In fact, the failure of that First Symphony threatened to undo Rachmaninoff, and for the next three years he didn’t write a note.
He had had occasion previously to doubt the depth of his musicianship. As a youngster he had enrolled on scholarship at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, but he proved so indifferent a student that the school threatened to curtail its support. At that point his uncle, the pianist Alexander Siloti, stepped in to provide a measure of discipline that Rachmaninoff’s parents and professors had not managed to instill, and he swept his promising but unfocused nephew off to the Moscow Conservatory and enrolled him in the piano studio of the famously strict Nikolai Zverev. That did the trick, and gradually Rachmaninoff started making good on his talent.
On June 5, 1892, Rachmaninoff graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. He had taken such great strides during his years there that he was deemed worthy of receiving the “Great Gold Medal,” an honor that had only been bestowed on two students previously. By that time he had already written his Piano Concerto No. 1. He would compose four piano concertos throughout his career. If Rachmaninoff had not somehow thrashed his way through the psychological impediment that arrived in the wake of the debacle of his First Symphony, we would be deprived of all but the first of this remarkable series.
Rachmaninoff’s talent was broad enough that, in the aftermath of his embarrassing public failure of 1897, he simply turned to a different musical pursuit and focused on conducting for the next few years. Before long he also sought the help of Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a music-loving physician who was investigating psychological therapy through hypnosis. Rachmaninoff related the experience: “I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day while I lay half asleep in the armchair in Dahl’s study. ‘You will write a Concerto. . . . You will work with great facility. . . . It will be excellent.’ . . . Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me. By the autumn I had finished two movements of the Concerto . . .”
The second and third movements were received enthusiastically at their premiere in December 1900. Within a few months, the concerto was finished. Rachmaninoff was not entirely free of self-doubt, and he went into something of a panic just prior to playing the premiere of the complete concerto; but the reviews, not to mention the public acclaim, assured him that he had been wrong to discount his abilities as a composer.
The distance separating Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto from his First is considerable. The First was the work of an unusually gifted young man just being unleashed on the world, and on the infrequent occasions when we hear it today it is almost always in the significantly revised version Rachmaninoff produced in 1917. The Second is altogether richer, deeper, and ultimately more original.
In this work, Rachmaninoff embraces the tradition of the grand Romantic piano concerto, particularly from the models of Liszt and Tchaikovsky. The first movement rises out of mysterious depths but quickly lets loose the first of many striking themes, this one being richly intoned by the strings. In fact, most of the melodies in this movement are entrusted to the orchestra rather than to the solo piano, which, to an unusual degree for a concerto, plays a largely ornamental role. It is surely a virtuoso concerto, and yet Rachmaninoff seems intent on disguising the virtuoso element.
The second movement is imbued with a sense of reverie, its material balanced between soloist and orchestra. Composers and critics throughout the twentieth century reviled Rachmaninoff for being hopelessly out-of-date, though that has never lessened his public appeal. Although Rachmaninoff probably never wrote a piece that could be described as avant-garde, he was hardly an unoriginal composer. Yet he was looking backwards in this middle movement, since he drew its principal theme from a piano work he had composed in 1890.
The principal theme of the finale comes from an unlikely source, a sacred concerto for chorus that Rachmaninoff had written in 1893. But it is the second theme of the finale that has captured the hearts of music-lovers. In an era when audiences were growing increasingly baffled by modern music, Rachmaninoff’s compositions could be reassuring, comforting, and meaningful. It is not for nothing that his Second Piano Concerto served as the soundtrack for David Lean’s 1946 film romance Brief Encounter. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard may pursue an impossible love affair in this classic movie, but their passion is sincere. And when you’re looking for a musical expression of sincere, heartfelt passion, your search leads naturally to Rachmaninoff.
—James M. Keller
More About the Music
Recordings: Zoltán Kocsis, with Edo de Waart conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Philips, out of print but available through arkivmusic.com) | Leif Ove Andsnes, with Antonio Pappano conducting the /Berlin Philharmonic (EMI Classics) | Yuja Wang, with Claudio Abbado conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon) | Vladimir Ashkenazy, with André Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Decca) | The composer as soloist, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, recorded in 1929 (RCA Victor)
Reading: Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings, by Max Harrison (Continuum) | Rachmaninoff: Orchestral Music, by Patrick Piggott (BBC Music Guides, University of Washington Press) | Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music, by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda (Indiana University Press) | Rachmaninoff, by Victor Seroff (Cassell & Company) | Rachmaninoff’s Recollections Told to Oskar von Reisemann (Macmillan)