Concerto No 2 in C Minor

For Piano and Orchestra, Op. 18, Sergei Rachmaninoff

“Melody is music and the foundation of all music. I do not appreciate composers who abandon melody and harmony for an orgy of noises and dissonances,” Rachmaninoff asserted.  Fulfilling this credo, the composer stuffed his Second Piano Concerto with an abundance of emotional, unforgettable tunes. Audiences around the world were delighted. During one of his tours in the United States, Rachmaninoff said, “These Americans cannot get enough of it.”

Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra was a personal as well as a musical triumph for the composer. During his lifetime Rachmaninoff was prone to depression, and Stravinsky used to speak of his “everlasting six and a half foot scowl.” Once again, for three years, between 1897 and 1900, Rachmaninoff had been in one of his deep depressions, unstable and unable to compose. It was said that Rachmaninoff could not even look at a blank piece of manuscript paper for two years. The trigger for all of this was he combined failure of a love affair and the critical disaster of his First Symphony, which had stopped him in his tracks. In his Memoirs, the composer explained, “A paralyzing apathy possessed me. I did nothing at all and found no pleasure in anything. Half my days were spent on a couch. I had given up in great despair.” Even the consoling words from the great novelist Tolstoy failed to help him.

Finally, under the hypnosis treatment of Dr. Nikolai Dahl (who had recently treated his aunt, Varvara Arkadyevna Satina) he recovered sufficiently to quit excessive drinking, to regain his will and ability to write.  After the treatment, Rachmaninoff recorded; “I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day while I lay half asleep in an armchair in Dahl’s study. ‘You will begin to write your concerto… You will work with great facility… The concerto will be of an excellent quality.’ It was always the same without interruption. Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me.”  Appropriately, Rachmaninoff dedicated the work to his physician. On October 14, 1901, he premiered his complete Second Piano Concerto in C minor with the Moscow Philharmonic conducted by Alexander Siloti. The outcome was wild, unfettered acclaim. (A partial Moscow premiere had taken place in December of 1900, with the second and third movements.).

The first movement, Moderato, opens with nine chords, stated with growing intensity from piano solo. Violins bounce from this springboard to immediately produce the first theme with collaborating piano embellishment. The soloist is brought to the forefront to introduce a yearning second theme (marked moderato, piano.)  Both ideas are developed in lyrical fashion, with a dapper march digression from the pianist. The recapitulation focuses largely on the second theme (sung by French horn) before a bright coda brings the movement to a close.

The second movement, Adagio sostenuto, begins with muted strings.  A gentle mood is evoked first by flute, followed by clarinet, and eventually in the piano singing a nocturne-like theme. A middle section offers scherzo-like drama from high woodwinds and bassoon and violas with cadenza-like participation from the soloist.  The movement closes with a return to the tranquil material of the beginning.

His third movement, Allegro scherzando, offers a brilliant finale, opening with crisp, martial style writing for the piano providing a peppy refrain. This dashing mood yields to one of the most famous melodies of the entire concerto, first sung by violas and solo oboe. The melody grows to gigantic proportions; the pianist leads into a passionate development, sweeping the listener into a sensual embrace.  Asafiev’s biography summarizes “[Rachmaninoff’s] music tenderly glorifies the beauty in life…the listener experiences the presence of human breathing, a vital flow of living speech, which goes from heart to heart.”  And, one might add, from age to age. A calming interlude cools the development before the exciting presto.  The lush viola tune re-appears, now cast in the brilliance of violins.  A brief cadenza for piano moves the tonality to C major.  Then, the orchestra joins in a re-affirmation of the melody in the highest instruments of the ensemble; and the concerto roars into a dazzling finish.

Themes from the concerto have been extracted to become long-time favorites and the music was heard in several film scores such as Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter. Explanation for the concerto’s popularity is really quite simple. It brims with unforgettable themes and rhapsodic emotion. Emotional excess was the social norm in turn of the century Russia; melancholy was a favorite. Rachmaninoff sampled and endured many emotional states, and these were reflected in his work. “I write that which is in my heart at the time I am composing…these moods become part of my music,” he explained.

The last ISO performance of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra was in January 2012, conducted by Rossen Milanov with pianist Khatia Buniatishvili.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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