Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 2 in C-Minor, Op. 18

by Max Derrickson

Sergey Vasilievich Rachmaninoff     (b in Semyonovo, Russia, 1873; d in Beverly Hills,CA, 1943)

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C-Minor, Op. 18
1. Moderato
2. Adagio sostenuto – Più animato – Tempo I
3. Allegro scherzando

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 may be the most popular piano concerto ever written, but its opening tells a troubled tale.  Dark chords mist over a repeating pedal tone, tolling like a death knell, growing in murkiness, increasing with ever more forceful attacks and volume, finally breaking free into tempestuous arpeggiated undulations as the orchestra plays its troubled, melancholic theme above.  That famous opening appears to tell the terrible tale of Rachmaninoff’s own emergence from an alcoholic depression and writer’s block at the beginning of his brilliant career.

When he was just 19, the gifted Rachmaninoff wrote the piece that would launch his international fame, his Prelude in C# Minor.  He had barely started his conservatory studies with the famous Tchaikovsky inMoscow.  Beloved by audiences, that Prelude would become something of a bane to Rachmaninoff’s career,
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Soon after composing this Prelude, when all the world was adoring this young composer and awaiting more masterpieces from his emerging genius, Rachmaninoff unveiled his Symphony No. 1 in 1897.  It was a terrible disaster.
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Beginning in January of 1900, Rachmaninoff and Dr. Dahl embarked on their journey back to sanity and creativity, by talking music, amending sleep patterns and eating habits, and repeating the hypnotic uplifting mantra: “You will begin your concerto . . . it will be excellent.”
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The Second Piano Concerto is yet another work by Rachmaninoff that seems to defy criticism, and so it has been ever since its premiere – so perfectly balanced is its form and pace, so exquisite its themes, so dark and restless and yet so filled with invention and hope.   After that bell-tolling introduction by the piano in the first movement, and its subsequent melancholic theme, Rachmaninoff then introduces a new theme, this one the obverse of the first, piqued in utter sensuousness.  The first movement ends with a certain violent overbite, however, which makes the second movement all the more enchanting.

The second movement Adagio is strikingly simple and breathtaking.  The flute sings a plaintive, rustic melody
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[. . .]    The Concerto comes to a perfect close – resolute, assured and brimming with good cheer, which is a wonderfully long way from the tolling torment with which the piece began.