Listening to Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto

Rachmaninovís Second Piano Concerto is probably the best known piano concerto in the repertoire. Itís one of those pieces thatís so well known, in fact, that many who think that they have never heard it before might recognise it.

It was always popular, but it became more so in the mid-1940s when it was used as the evocative soundtrack for one of the most famous films ever made, David Leanís Brief Encounter.

Rachmaninov composed the work between late 1900 and the spring of 1901,  just as he was emerging from a deep clinical depression into which he had fallen following the critical failure of his first Symphony in 1897 - a failure at least partly due to the fact that the conductor, the composer Alexander Glazunov, was drunk. Rachmaninov gratefully dedicated the work to Nikolay Dahl, the neurologist who cured him.

The workís first complete performance took place on October 27 1901, with the composer himself - one of the great pianists of his time - as soloist and his own cousin, Alexander Siloti, conducting. There are just three movements. The opening of the first movement is as arresting as anything in the repertoire. The piano, all alone, plays a sequence of bell-like chords - bell-sounds pepper Rachmaninovís work - beginning quietly but getting louder and louder, before the orchestra starts with its famous dark, dramatic theme, very Russian-sounding, with the soloist playing intricate passage work underneath.

  Listen to the opening of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto

This is very dramatic music, with a tremendous, nervous intensity about it, although the second main idea is more relaxed and lyrical.

  Listen to the second theme of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto

The second, slow movement is in E major - quite unusual for a work in C minor - and has a poignant theme first heard on the clarinet but taken up by the piano.

  Listen to the opening of the middle movement of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto

A middle, slightly faster section works on this theme, achieving a climax, and thereís some brilliant passage work before the return of the first section, now modified and re-scored.

   Listen to an extract of the middle section of the second movement of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto

And then the finale, which begins march-like and with an extravagant flourish from the piano has yet another beautiful theme as its second main idea, which Rachmaninov works up into an overwhelming climax.

   Listen to the opening of the finale of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto

   Listen to the climax of the finale of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto

Throughout all this, despite some dazzling orchestral writing, itís clear that the piano is king, its music covering the whole gamut of expression, from the delicate, poised and poetic to the powerful to the brilliantly athletic.

Stephen Pettitt

Leave your thoughts about Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto...  

(07/10/2008 16:51:26)
The soaring melodies and wonderful harmonies make this and the Second Symphony essential listening for all romantic souls

- Greg Varney
(07/10/2008 14:41:54)
this in my humble opinion is the best piano
concerto ever written in fact i rate as
the best classical music ever written i never
get tired of listening to it WONDERFUL WORK.

- Charles Field

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