Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2

SERGEI VASILIEVICH RACHMANINOFF

BORN: April 1, 1873. Semyonovo, district of Starorusky, Russia

DIED: March 28, 1943. Beverly Hills, CA

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

WORLD PREMIERE: November 9, 1901. Rachmaninoff was soloist with his teacher and first cousin Alexander Siloti conducting in Moscow 

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

DURATION: About 32 mins

THE BACKSTORY Rachmaninoff must have known how strong and original a work his First Symphony was. Nonetheless he was always subject to depression, and following the work’s awful premiere, 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. 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.

THE MUSIC The Second Piano Concerto seems to unfold effortlessly, 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, with a series of piano chords in crescendo. The gathering harmonic tension and dynamic force constitute 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. Nowhere is the pianist so often an ensemble partner and so rarely a soloist aggressively in the foreground as in this first movement. The initial impulse plays itself out in one grand, tightly organized paragraph and 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 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.—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.