Skip to main content

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)


Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
I. Moderato
II. Adagio sostenuto
III. Allegro scherzando

In 1897, Rachmaninov's first symphony was premiered in Moscow. He was 24, and already recognised as rising young pianist and composer. The event was eagerly anticipated by press and public - but it was a disaster. The symphony was badly played, and was slammed by the critics. (It is always easy to blame the composer.) Rachmaninov was stunned, and in despair tore up the only score. It was never played again in his lifetime. This shock completely destroyed his confidence; he wrote no music for the next three years, and neither a successful concert trip to London nor a request from the London Philharmonic Society for a concerto was enough to pull him out of a deep depression.

He turned to alternative medicine (nothing is new!) and to a well-known hypnotist, one Dr. Nikolai Dahl for help. Rachmaninov explained it later thus: "I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day, while I lay half asleep in Dahl's study. "You will begin to write your concerto … You will work with great ease … The concerto will be of excellent quality …" It was always the same, without interruption. Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me. At the beginning of the summer I began to compose. The material began to grow, and new musical ideas began to stir within me." And when the concerto was finished in 1900, Rachmaninov gratefully dedicated it to Dr. Dahl. One hopes Dr. Dahl appreciated it, since the resulting concerto is Rachmaninov at his best, and remains one of the most popular of all piano concertos. It is in three movements, of roughly equal length.

The first movement opens with deep bell-like chords on the piano, leading into a big but solemn tune on the whole orchestra. The melody spreads its wings wide, and the piano weaves accompaniment round it. A big orchestral climax is answered by a serious little phrase on the violas, and leads into a second theme for the piano, which rises and falls like an arch. Both themes are developed, and then the opening theme comes back on full orchestra, this time with a brilliant martial accompaniment for the piano. The second theme comes back too, this time on solo French horn. The movement ends with a sudden burst of rhythmic energy.

The slow movement is so lovely that descriptive words are unnecessary. The tracery of piano decoration around the woodwind solos is exquisite. Apart from a brief burst of fireworks from the piano in a cadenza towards the end of the movement, this is nostalgic dreaming of great beauty.

The finale alternates a fast, light and spiky theme, which appears first, with a slower long and sinuous melody, typically Rachmaninov, similar in shape to the second theme of the first movement. This first appears on the violas of the orchestra. The faster tempo returns, and the soloist joins in a passionate development. The viola theme comes back on the brighter violins, a big climax works up and, after a brief cadenza, soloist and orchestra together blaze out the big second theme, followed by a whirl to a brilliant conclusion.

Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30
I. Allegro ma non Tanto
II. Intermezzo: Adagio
III. Finale: Alla breve

Sergei Rachmaninov lived a life of two very different halves. He was born into an aristocratic Russian family, comfortably well off, and well educated. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory and when he graduated had the means and the leisure to devote himself to composition. In time and despite some setbacks, notably the disastrous premiere of his first symphony, he built a growing reputation at home and abroad as a composer. But he fled Russia in the Revolution of 1917, in which he lost all his land and other assets, and had to start again from scratch. He couldn't even live on royalties from his earlier compositions, since the Soviet authorities never paid him any. So at the age of 44 he began another career in exile, as a pianist and conductor. In the later years he had little time for composition, but the handful of works he managed to complete in these last 25 years are very fine ones, including the Paganini Rhapsody and the Symphonic Dances.

The Third piano concerto dates from 1909, when Rachmaninov was still in Russia, and about to go on his first concert tour of the United States. He wrote it during the summer on the family estate of Ivanovka, some 600 km to the South East of Moscow, a place he went every summer to relax, absorb the spirit of the countryside, and write his music. The American tour was in the winter (November to January) and it was successful, but he found it very tiring. The concerto was first played with the composer as soloist in New York in November 1909, with the second performance a few days later. The second performance was conducted by Gustav Mahler, then principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

The piece quickly became established and popular, though some critics found it overlong (it lasts about 40 minutes). They all agreed with the New York Herald that “ its great length and extreme difficulties bar it from performance by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers” . On the surface it resembles the second piano concerto, but there are significant differences. It is more influenced by Russian Orthodox church music, especially the main theme of the first movement. This theme also underpins the whole work, giving it a thematic unity the second concerto lacks. And it flows more seamlessly, the different sections joined by very subtle tempo changes.

The first movement starts simply; just a simple piano theme played gently in octaves. It is quite long, rooted to the tonic D, though it rises in the middle before falling back to D again. It is repeated by the orchestra with piano decorations, and is then developed busily. After a short piano cadenza the pace slows, and a tiny fanfare-like motif leads to the second main theme, gentle and lyrical. Very gradually the speed picks up, and we hear a reprise of the opening. But this soon turns into a development of the opening theme, which becomes agitated and dramatic, swelling to a climax. This then subsides gradually, and merges into a long and complex piano solo of great brilliance. Woodwind soloists join the pianist for a few bars, who then explores the lyrical second theme, still as a piano solo. Eventually the orchestra re-enters with a recap of the opening of the concerto – but we hear just the opening theme and fanfare motif before the movement ends abruptly, but quietly.

The orchestra alone opens the adagio with a melody not sad, but nostalgic and reflective. After a while the piano joins in, and then has his own version of the theme, initially gentle but with latent passion. Orchestra and soloist together develop this, and point out some similarities with the main tune of the first movement. Rachmaninov gives us variety in a brief quick section – the piano skittering rapidly above a waltz tune in the wind. This tune is identical in notes to the first movement's main theme, though in a different rhythm. The pace slows again, and we move directly to the Finale.

The last movement is a subtle and fluid dance, mostly rapid, and not easy to analyse. The piano leads the dance, whose tune is then repeated by the orchestra. Later the piano gives us a more obviously romantic melody, rich and full. This then quietens and slows down, and the tunes are developed together – often the orchestra seems to be in one speed (slow) while the piano is dancing at a much faster speed above and around them. There is a reflective section in which the piano slows down for a while before dancing away again. A hymn-like chorale in the piano leads to a recall of the opening, and varied development of the main themes. Then the rhythm tightens, the volume grows and the speed accelerates to the main climax – the big romantic second theme is given the full treatment – and the concerto hurtles to its conclusion.

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, Op. 40
I. Allegro vivace. (Alla breve)
II. Largo
III. Allegro vivace

Liszt and Rachmaninov were perhaps the two greatest pianist-composers in the history of music. But whereas Liszt began as a pianist and later turned to serious composition, Rachmaninov took the opposite journey. Born into an aristocratic family that was gradually running out of money, Rachmaninov studied composition at the Moscow conservatoire. He had several early works performed to acclaim, especially the famous Prelude in C# minor, and by the age of forty Rachmaninov had composed 2 symphonies, 3 piano concertos, several operas, and much vocal and chamber music. In 1917 came the revolution, and everything changed. Rachmaninov left Russia to go to Scandinavia and then the USA, where he eventually settled. But he had lost his family estates and the royalty income from his compositions (copyright was not enforced as strongly then as now) and was virtually penniless. He had to turn to playing the piano for a career, and fitted in composing in his summer vacations. In his last 20 years he wrote little, the main compositions being the 4th piano concerto, the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, the Symphonic Dances and his 3rd symphony.

The fourth piano concerto, the first of the major works he wrote after leaving Russia, has a chequered history. He wrote it in 1926, and revised it somewhat before the first performance in Philadelphia in 1927. It was not well received, so he revised it further before publishing it; but the next performance in 1929 still suffered poor reviews. Unsure what to do, he left it alone for a while, and it was not until 1941 that he made further substantial revisions, performing the revised version in October 1941. To his dis- appointment the critics were still sniffy about it, and it has never gained the popularity of the 2nd and 3rd concertos. This is largely because it is not as obvious, not as 'in-your-face' as those works. The interest is not so much in the intrinsic beauty of the themes, as in what happens to them, which is quite unpredictable. This is particularly so in the 1st and 3rd movements, and gives the concerto a surprisingly modern feel to it.

The opening statement is in two parts - an orchestral introduction and a piano melody in rich chords that climbs up and then gradually descends. This happens twice, the second time slightly extended. Then the theme is broken up, and the fragments developed by the piano with delicate accompaniment by the orchestra. Some of the fragments sound like separate themes, but all are closely related. The music rises to a huge and passionate climax, and then gently relaxes again for a condensed recapitulation of the earlier ideas. The music swells again, but this time fades rapidly as the violins take the theme soaring into the heights, with the piano decorating it with rippling arpeggios. The end is abrupt.

The slow movement is in three parts. In the first section, the piano and orchestra alternate with a theme highly reminiscent of Three Blind Mice - or the melody Schnittke borrowed from Grieg. The central section is more agitated, and the last blends a review of the first section with a new tune, rich and romantic.

It leads directly into the finale, fast and hectic. Various themes are hinted at, but not indulged in. After two long sections of gradually building excitement, release comes with a repeat of the big tune from the first movement, and a hectic sprint to the finish.

Back to programme notes index