Rachmaninoff – Symphony No. 2 in E-minor, op. 27

by Max Derrickson

Sergei Rachmaninov     (b Oneg (Russia), April 1, 1873; Beverly Hills,CA, March 28, 1943)

Symphony No. 2 in E-minor, op. 27
1. Largo– Allegro moderato
2. Allegro molto
3. Adagio
4. Allegro vivace

Sergei Rachmaninov was perhaps the finest and most acclaimed among the Russian pianists, conductors and composers.  Nevertheless,Russia’s political upheavals, from WWI and the Revolution in 1917, essentially made him a refugee, emigrating throughout Europe and theUnited States.  Without the money and possessions he left behind inRussia, he supported his family through concertizing and conducting, and often had to carve out time to compose.  It was during a short stay inDresdenbetween conducting commitments that Rachmaninov wrote the Symphony No. 2 from 1906 to 1907.  Rachmaninov’s symphonic compositions owe a great debt to his compatriot composers Tchaikovsky (for the freedom to write intensely emotional music), and Rimsky-Korsakov (for the astounding possibilities in orchestral color).  To this heritage Rachmaninov evolved his own distinctive voice, richly lyrical, harmonically sophisticated, and structurally broad and ingenious.  The Second Symphony is arguably Rachmaninov’s best symphonic effort.  Written at the pinnacle of his triple career, as composer, performer and conductor, this piece epitomizes musicianship.


The Second is uniquely clever in its overall concept, as the thematic material dovetails within all four movements, creating a vast panoramic effect while retaining an organic connectivity throughout.  Beyond its structural genius, however, what makes this symphony so accessible is its hallmark Rachmaninovian melodies, so expressively beautiful with moments of sheer power and excitement to steal your breath away.  The Second is not a programmatic piece, but its lengthiness and overall effect is quite epic.  Beginning with the first movement’s introductory Largo, brooding and undulating (and presenting the thematic roots that become the Symphony’s ‘motto’), the tone then shifts with the Allegro moderato as the pace quickens and we hear the first full theme — a sensuously melting tune.
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The Allegro molto acts as the scherzo in the typical symphonic structure, leaping out of   that moment of silence like a race horse from the gate.  Using the first movement’s ‘motto’ as the basis for its first theme, it gallops excitedly through the first section, also foreshadowing the thematic tone of the fourth movement finale.
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Part C acts as a fugal treatment of A.  The movement closes pensively with Part B returning for the last time, and just before the end we hear a somber, liturgical chant in the brass echoing the symphony’s opening ‘motto’ and which will return much later in the Symphony at a cleverly unexpected moment.

The third movement is a quintessential “Rachmaninov Adagio” – a wonderfully gentle, lyrical and wandering rhapsody.  Its swooping, opening motif harkens back to the first movement and is a key element herein, but the rhapsodic main theme, first played by the clarinet, showcases Rachmaninov’s deftness for making modestly simple melodies sound so vast and deep.
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The Finale, Allegro vivace, crashes open in a carnival mood, horns yelping, trumpets proclaiming, strings and winds leaping.
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