…there is no doubting the sense that something was unleashed within the composer…a new assuredness of style is evident, and there is an almost overwhelming abundance of melody.
SERGEI RACHMANINOFF (1873–1943)
PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2 IN C MINOR, OP. 18
The story of the creation of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto is often told: the young composer, a star student of the Moscow Conservatory and a favourite of Tchaikovsky, had achieved considerable success getting his earliest works published, but in 1897 his ambitious First Symphony was disastrously premiered in St Petersburg, resulting in vicious press attacks, notoriously from César Cui who compared it to a program symphony based on The Seven Plagues of Egypt. Supposedly, the ordeal led Rachmaninoff into a three-year period of deep depression in which he was unable to write, and ended only after a course in hypnotherapy with the viola-playing Dr Nikolai Dahl. The doctor’s treatment apparently persuaded the young composer that he would be able to write a new concerto, and the resulting work – dedicated to Dahl – has become one of the most famous in the piano repertory.
It’s an attractive tale, yet despite Rachmaninoff’s obvious disappointment with the reception of his symphony, the so-called ‘creative hiatus’ was a relatively busy period for him. From 1898, he took up the baton professionally for the first time, conducting numerous performances for the newly established Mamontov Private Opera Company in Moscow, and directing the young Chaliapin in roles for which he would later become so famous. Such was his conducting skill that within a few years he would hold a position at the Bolshoi Theatre. The period also heralded a subtle but significant change in his outlook on composition once he started writing larger works again. From 1900 Rachmaninoff favoured a more conservative style than that of his symphony, and one that, ironically, became the source of some personal consternation as he sought to evolve his creative voice in following years.
Whether due to the course in hypnotherapy – after all, it was some months before he began to write again – or simply the passage of time, there is no doubting the sense that something was unleashed within the composer in the works that followed. In the concerto and other compositions of the period
(the Second Two-Piano Suite and the Sonata for Piano and Cello are the closest), a new assuredness of style is evident, and there is an almost overwhelming abundance of melody. These new works were also created quickly: the second and third movements of the concerto were completed within a few months, and a performance of these took place in December 1900 in Moscow. The first complete performance of the new concerto occurred on 9 November 1901, also in Moscow, with the composer at the piano and his cousin, the noted pianist Alexander Siloti, conducting.
The famous opening notes of the Second Piano Concerto are essentially an extended cadence: slightly varied chords over bell-like bass notes gradually increase in volume, before the notes A flat, F, G – the basis of a motif that appears throughout the concerto – resolve to the home key of C minor, whereon the orchestra introduces the expansive principal subject. The second theme, in the key of the relative major, is by contrast given almost exclusively
to the piano. The development section begins with material based on the motif, while a fragment of the second subject in the violins propels the movement to its climax. The recapitulation follows, with the orchestra again stating the main theme while the piano provides a martial-like accompaniment based on material extrapolated from the motif. The opening phrase of the second subject is recalled by the French Horn, and, rather than providing a complete restatement, Rachmaninoff shares fragments of the melody gently between the soloist and the orchestra. The reverie is soon broken, however, and a build-up of momentum brings the movement to a fiery close.
A short orchestral passage serves to move the second movement to the warmer key of E major where, over an arpeggiated figure in the piano (material composed some years earlier for a six-hand piano Romance), the first subject is given to the flute, then taken over by the clarinet. After a second statement of the theme by the soloist, the melody is developed as the music builds. A faster scherzando section – perhaps recalling the analogous section in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto – leads the movement to a climax, at which point Rachmaninoff provides a cadenza (lacking from its traditional place
in the first movement). The violins restate the opening melodic material, before sustained piano chords accompany a passage of gradual melodic descent as the movement dies away.
The final movement begins quietly on low strings, the rhythmic material being related to the motif. A dramatic keyboard cadenza also emphasises the motif before introducing the principal theme. A short period of development, including a brief shift to waltz-time, leads to an abrupt key change and the announcement of the lyrical second subject by the oboe and violas. This is perhaps one of Rachmaninoff’s most famous melodies, which the literature suggests may have been ‘borrowed’ from a friend. However, if there
is any truth to this story it is more likely that the reference is only to the opening notes, its expansive treatment bearing too many of the composer’s inimitable hallmarks. A trance-like section over a held bass note leads to a development section where Rachmaninoff, with youthful exuberance, replaces a recapitulation of the first subject with a fugue based on its opening notes. The second subject is then heard again in the distant key of D-flat major, before a short coda leads to a final restatement of the melody, this time fortissimo and given to the full orchestra, underpinned by massive chords on the piano. In characteristic fashion, the concerto concludes with a spirited dash to the end.
© Scott Davie, 2007