Program Notes

Concerto No. 2 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 18

BORN April 1, 1873. Semyonovo, District of Starorusky, Russia
DIED March 28, 1943. Beverly Hills, California.

COMPOSED: Using some material that goes back to the early 1890s, Rachmaninoff wrote the second and third movements of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in the fall of 1900 and completed the first movement on May 4, 1901.  The score bears a dedication “To Monsieur N. Dahl”

WORLD PREMIERE: November 9, 1901, in Moscow, with the composer as soloist and his teacher and first cousin Alexander Siloti conducting

US PREMIERE: November 18, 1905, in New York, with pianist Raoul Pugno and Modest Altschuler conducting the Russian Symphony Society

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, and strings

DURATION: About 32 mins

In 1897, Rachmaninoff's First Symphony was introduced in Saint Petersburg at a concert conducted by Alexander Glazunov. Glazunov was a good composer and an uncommonly decent man, but he does seem to have been a terrible conductor, and on this occasion he wrought disaster. It was certainly not the only time in the history of music that the critics, like the public, were unable to distinguish between an awful performance and an awful piece.

Rachmaninoff must have known how strong and original a work the Symphony was. Nonetheless, always subject to depression, he quickly found himself unable to face the sight of blank manuscript paper. He grew despondent. The longer his composer's voice was silent the worse he felt; the worse he felt the more impossible the idea of composing.

At the head of the first page of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto stands the simple dedication, "À Monsieur N. Dahl." Monsieur Dahl was actually Dr. Nicolai Dahl, an internist who had been studying hypnosis. Dahl was also an excellent violist and cellist and founder of his own string quartet. Rachmaninoff began daily visits to him in January 1900. The first aim was to improve the composer's sleep and appetite. The larger goal was to enable him to compose a piano concerto. Dr. Dahl's treatment, a mixture of hypnotic suggestion (“You will begin your concerto . . . you will work with great facility . . . the concerto will be excellent . . .”) and cultured conversation, did its work. By April, Rachmaninoff felt well enough to travel to the Crimea and on to Italy. When he returned home, he brought with him sketches for the new piano concerto. Two movements, the second and third, were finished that fall and introduced in December. After the concert, Rachmaninoff added the first movement. Five days before the premiere in November 1901, he suffered a moment of panic and was convinced he had produced a totally incompetent piece of work, but the tempestuous success he enjoyed at the premiere seems to have convinced him otherwise.

A quality especially apparent in the Second Piano Concerto is a sense of effortlessness in its unfolding, and that is something new in Rachmaninoff's music. He begins magnificently, and with something so familiar that we come perilously close to taking it for granted—a series of piano chords in crescendo, all based on F, each reinforced by the tolling of the lowest F on the keyboard, and, through the gathering harmonic tension and dynamic force, constituting a powerful springboard for the move into the home chord of C minor. Once there, the strings with clarinet initiate a plain but intensely expressive melody, which the piano accompanies with sonorous broken chords. The piano's role as accompanist is also worth noting. Nowhere is the pianist so often an ensemble partner and so rarely a soloist aggressively in the foreground as in this first movement of the Second Concerto. The initial impulse plays itself out in one grand, tightly organized paragraph, to which Rachmaninoff appends two small afterthoughts, a bit of scurrying for the piano and a quite formal set of cadential chords. It is only then that the orchestra falls silent and the pianist steps forward as a vocal soloist in the grand Romantic manner.

Rachmaninoff constructs a bridge passage into the second movement. Again the pianist is at first the accompanist, briefly to the flute, at greater length to the clarinet. Throughout the movement the relationship between piano and orchestra is imagined and worked out with great delicacy. There is something captivatingly touching about the way the piano shyly inserts just six notes of melody between the first two phrases of the clarinet, the roles of piano and orchestra being reversed later in the movement. A quicker interlude functions as a token scherzo. This interlude spills into a splash of cadenza, and for just five notes a pair of flutes eases the music back into softly swaying arpeggios.

Rachmaninoff again makes a bridge into the finale, beginning with distant, rather conspiratorial march music, then working his way around to the piano's assertive entrance. The march music is now determined and vigorous, and Rachmaninoff finds for contrast the most famous of his big tunes. It all moves to a rattling bring-down-the-house conclusion. When one remembers the biographical background to this concerto, it is pleasing to see that the last tempo mark is “risoluto.” 

—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(November 2017)

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