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Why I Love Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2

Welcome to the first edition of my brand new Radar column, “The Encore.” It’s an “encore” in addition to the standard club meetings I hold on Tuesdays where I can share my thoughts about Classical music. My grandfather once said that everyone over the age of fifty has enough resources and material from their past life experiences, passions, and knowledge to write a good book. I thought I could do something similar—just on a smaller scale—through this new column.

To celebrate the creation of “The Encore,” I would like to discuss with you a piece that is close to my heart: Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 18. I first heard this piece during an online class last year about orchestral masterpieces, when one boy, who was perhaps the most passionate and knowledgeable in the class, introduced it to us. Students were only given a brief amount of time to share repertoire before the teacher’s main lecture, but in that narrow slice of time when we heard the first one and a half or two minutes of the first movement of that concerto, I fell in love with it. Therefore, just as my classmate once shared this masterpiece with me, so positively changing my life, I feel it would now only be right to share it with you.

The composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, a twenty-two-year-old recent graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, premiered his First Symphony in early 1897. The performance was led by famous composer and conductor Alexander Glazunov in St. Petersburg, but for reasons not completely known, it was a complete failure. Many in the audience claimed that the orchestra was under-rehearsed or that Glazunov appeared to be drunk, but in the end it was Rachmaninoff who took the blame. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a highly esteemed composer in Russia commented, “Forgive me, but I do not find this music at all agreeable.” The most infamous and damaging criticism came from another member of “The Five” great composers of Russia, César Cui, who wrote, “If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students were to compose a program symphony based on the story of the Ten 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 have delighted the inhabitants of Hell.”

For two years, Rachmaninoff was plunged into a deep, seemingly inescapable depression and psychological collapse, falling into a stifling compositional block. It was not until the turn of the century that the artist, guided by his cousins, began therapy with Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a physician (and amateur musician) who specialized in hypnotism. After four months of visits, a restored Rachmaninoff springboarded back into a fury of writing, finally completing his fantastic Piano Concerto No. 2. For this almost miraculous turnaround in attitude and confidence, Rachmaninoff graciously dedicated his grand work to “Monsieur N. Dahl” upon its publication in April, 1901. This time around, he chose to premiere the work himself as soloist with his trusted cousin Alexander Ziloti as conductor. The successful reception afterwards was an important turning point that restored Rachmaninoff’s public image and established his place as a prominent Russian composer.

The most distinctive measures of this piece—the ones that first caught my attention that night one year ago—are undoubtedly the string of chords at the start of the First Movement. Just listen to how menacingly dramatic this passage is! To create a mysterious air, most performers start the passage extremely quietly (sometimes when I listen with headphones, I can’t even hear the first few seconds!). The following chords grow and shift— poco a poco crescendo—changing by one note each, until finally the performer is through with F Minor, slamming three accented notes into the keys, drawing them out as much as possible with the ritardando, before a surprising change to C Minor. One documentary by the BBC I watched said that these notes were meant to signify the bells of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had a “deep, resounding impact” on Rachmaninoff’s childhood.

From there, the piece moves into the first theme. But Rachmaninoff doesn’t follow the path of previous composers, giving the soloist the spotlight throughout the performance. Instead, for a large portion of the piece, the orchestra plays the themes. Even in the beginning, right after the smooth transition to C Minor, the composer hands the melody to the string section for nearly a minute and a half while the pianist plays backup arpeggios. As a violinist, I appreciate when concerto-writers such as Rachmaninoff give other members of the orchestra some time to shine alongside the soloist. I believe that in many respects Leonard Bernstein, one of my recent favorite composers, could have categorized his 1949 piece “Age of Anxiety” as a Piano Concerto, as it heavily features a professional pianist as the musical centerpiece, but I find it beautiful that he instead chose to deem it his Second Symphony, a term that gives equal attention and credit to all musicians. In the same way, I find it astounding that Rachmaninoff, one of the greatest pianists of all time himself, graciously shared his compositions with other instrumentalists to enjoy.

The first movement of Rachmaninioff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 reminds me of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 which begins with a similar sequence of dramatic chords and sudden key change, from B-flat minor to the relative D-flat major. Then the orchestra once again takes the first theme while the piano plays chords. I think it is quite evident that Rachmaninoff took a great deal of structural inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s work.

It’s amazing how Rachmaninoff is able to take from both the forceful and the peaceful sides of music, transitioning between each so seamlessly. To balance out the violent, dramatic introduction from the full orchestra, Rachmaninoff gives us a beautiful, peaceful piano section near the middle of the piece. One of my recent favorite video essay-makers, Dr. Duane Hulbert, published a fantastic video on his Youtube channel “Learn and Love Music” explaining why this particular section of the piece, and the concerto as a whole, is so beautiful.

In the end, I believe that Rachmaninoff’s sheer inventive skill is what made his Second Piano Concerto so great. Not only does Rachmaninoff model his work off of some of his Russian inspirations, but his new creative endeavor is expansive; the melody of the first movement continues for a whole seven minutes before repeating itself! He also wrote this masterpiece, his ticket to Russian musical prominence, almost immediately after miraculously recovering from a three-year-long depression! This past year, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 received the fifth highest number of votes from listeners of the Classical KDFC radio station in San Francisco, even outranking other beautiful, well-known pieces such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and Mozart’s Requiem. I am extremely excited for the possible opportunity to hear this piece many more times this summer in Moscow’s inaugural Rachmaninoff International Competition for Pianists, Composers, and Conductors.

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