Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto no.2 in c minor, op.18 (1901)
Rach 2. Where do I even begin with such an iconic piece of music? It sits alongside Beethoven’s Emperor, Tchaikovsky’s first, Grieg’s, and…well, Rachmaninoff’s third, as being among the most beloved piano concertos ever written. It also makes for a great motivational success story. Rachmaninoff struggled a lot in his early music career, and after his first symphony’s premiere was a failure [and I will put all the blame on Glazunov who came drunk, another reason not to listen to his music], and the stress of it all made Rachmaninoff extremely depressed. He was able to get out of depression and writers block through therapy, and the creative output in this period produced some of his most popular works; the cello sonata, the second suite for two pianos, the Chopin variations, the second symphony…and of course, this concerto. Because it is so popular, it’s usually a lot of people’s introduction to classical music. It was one of the first major pieces I fell in love with way back in high school. And honestly, it’s something that I can listen to over and over and it never gets old. The melodies are full of life and the construction is so fresh and almost organic. Because I’d listened to it so often I’ve memorized the first movement by heart. It is also one of my favorite pieces to listen to in autumn. It opens with distant “bells” at the lower end of the piano, slow chords get louder and louder until a declarative statement throws us into a pianistic flourish while the orchestra plays the main theme over it. A very long theme, songlike, almost folksy but somewhat ‘jazzy’. That quality, Rachmaninoff’s extended harmonies, is what would cause so many pop singers to quote the melodies from this concerto. After the first melody, we get a little dramatic flourish that takes us into the B melody, a “love-song” feeling melody that is longing and passionate. The orchestra and piano are woven together as this hyper-romantic melody swells like an ocean of sound, with aching harmonies that makes me feel like I’m floating. The dramatic opening melody comes back, the music gets sinister and through this crescendo, the full stage is shaking like an earthquake before the opening melody bursts forward like a Russian army march. The second half of the opening melody is played primarily piano solo, light accompaniment, with less of the intensity. Then, one of the gorgeous moments in all of Rachmaninoff’s music, the horns play out the B melody, what was like a love-song is now a haunting melody that feels so distant, like a shadowed memory. We stay in a dreamlike atmosphere for a bit, until the piano starts to speed up and rush the rest of the orchestra into the coda. The way that the music exists as a constant flow of notes from beginning to end makes this one of the best constructed first movements I know about. The slow movement is also gorgeous, another inspiration for pop singers through history. It opens with a choral on the strings, before the piano comes in playing like a harp. Then the flute comes in with a duet, playing the main theme. The clarinets join, and the orchestra passes the main melody around each other along with the piano. It is a nostalgic melody, one of those magical moments in music that forces you to recall some bittersweet memory in your past. It also feels through-composed, the melody keeps going as if in one long breath. There are some flourishes, and a hint of a rising optimistic theme, breaking out into very hyperactive music that feels out of place for a slow movement but somehow works here. After repeating the melody, the movement comes to a close. The last movement comes in like a little march, that soon gets dramatic and bouncy, almost operatic. The main theme of the first movement comes back here and there, along with hints at the dies irae chant. The “b” melody here is uplifting, quiet and calm on the orchestra before the piano repeats it with delicacy. The drama repeats, and then the soft melody repeats, and we get hints of the build-up melody from the second movement. It all comes together in a coda that first has virtuosic runs in the piano, and after the intense build up, the climax is otherworldly. The B melody is transformed into some kind of anthem, like a celebration of the human spirit against adversity. Here is the most passionate music of the concerto, before the rush brings us into a fun final few bars that forces us to smile.
2. Adagio sostenuto – Più animato
3. Allegro scherzando