Week44: rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor


I then worshipped Tolstoy, when I approached him my knees trembled. He made me sit down beside him and stroked my knees. He saw how nervous I was. And then, he said to me: ‘You must work. Do you think that I am pleased with myself? Work. I work every day... “” sergei rachmaninoff

not many composers can say they’ve had their knees massaged by tolstoy...but yes that’s correct: work, work--there’s no better remedy.

it’s been, across all fronts, one of those marvelously baffling weeks, wherein the good slaps the bad with some ugly. but first: how about them Raptors...and that is probably the first time i’ve said that without the usual tongue-in-cheekiness. that our perennially disappointing ball team inexplicably cobbled together two road wins in one of the most hostile and self-assured arenas in professional sports--almost makes up for anything in that bad and ugly category of daily happenings. if we do pull this off tomorrow night, that would have been the most unexpected finale to the Warriors’ tenure at Oracle Arena: hundreds of canadian expats singing their anthem (perhaps trying to make up for that horrendous rendition by burlington’s aptly named Walk of the Earth) after a victory in their nearly empty arena. hip hip.

in an entirely separate category from the good, bad and ugly: it’s a slow kind of joy to return to rachmaninoff’s second Concerto for the piano. it’s for pieces like these that i keep this journal; a couple bars into the second movement, Adagio sostenuto, and a slo-mo vignette of june 2018 passes through me like a premonition. i’m reminded of all my trying, the mad rushes for projects that i’ve since forgotten; cares, aimless concerns that are now beyond irrelevant. that’s one of the things music of this kind affords, its ability to fill the background while you’re busy shooting your shot, and yet completely dominate any span of attention you can give to it. at the TSO’s mixed program this week i was sat next to a couple who have been subscribers to the symphony near fifty years now (a somewhat catty debate ensued between the two for exactly how long it’s been). at my apparently still gestative age of 25 it’s already unimaginable to be around for that long, but on top of that to have a piece of music that can stretch that disorienting span of time and city, is incomprehensible...and sublime.

Feeling that his First Piano Concerto (1891; extensively revised in 1917) was not a strong work, he had been attempting, without success, to write a new one. Members of his family prevailed upon him to visit Dr. Nicholas Dahl, a psychiatrist living in Moscow who was known for his treatment of nervous conditions with hypnotism and suggestion. For three months early in 1900 Rachmaninoff made daily visits to Dr. Dahl, and this is his account: “I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day while I lay half asleep in an armchair in Dahl’s study: ‘You will begin to write your Concerto...you will work with great facility...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 summer I began to compose again. The material grew in bulk and new musical ideas began to stir within me--more than enough for my concerto.”  “” phillip ramey, concert notes for Funk & Wagnalls recording

perhaps that explains in part the opening notes of the first movement (Moderato), the clang of church bells that with each toll approaches nearer. thereafter, english and french horns interchange on the main theme as the piano exhausts and recharges it’s energies over and over till the movement comes to a close on an exclamatory note.

Rachmaninoff does indeed evoke the tradition in which the orchestra introduces the most important material first, after which the soloist enters. But the fact that the piano does not play the sweeping firth theme (and never plays the first part of it) sets up a powerful psychological situation, whose attempts at resolution later on prove extremely powerful. “” robert phillip, The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestra Music

it’s a work perfect for the beginning of summer, and not only because it was composed at such a time, but in how restlessly two seasonal forces wrestle in the stream of music three movements long---the lingering self-preservation of spring and the bombasts of midsummer liberalism already rearing its head. the Concerto takes us through something akin to the ever-winding tortuous contours of river: here and there cataracts beat down on the instrument, the violins and violas rise up out of the raucous like clouds of mist as piano returns back to the steady currents of gently shimmering arpeggios. it’s tempting to generalize this pattern of storm and calm to the entirety of the work, but this concerto--indeed any concerto that succeeds at what it’s trying to do--articulates the spectrum between the bombastic and sonorous.

the second movement, one of my favourite pieces of piano music, is altogether a different matter. i suspect that somewhere in the editing process of work, rachmaninoff must have added more muscle and volume to the opening notes of the Moderato, if only to emphasize the contrast between it and the ones that open the Adagio sostenuto. the movement is introduced by a brief swell of strings that calms the waters enough for the solo instrument to wade into the scenery with gentle strokes. the orchestra is nearly muted for much of the opening segment till a gentle breeze invites the main subject on principal flute, a clarinet echoes the melody and the piano takes the background as parts of the wind section develops the main theme. the middle section adds more volume to the orchestra and the closing segment of the movement returns to the tete-e-tete between piano and wind instruments, this time beginning with bassoon and thereon to trombones and trumpets to lead into the burgeoning and string-heavy finale, Allegro scherzando, played out in a triumphant tone.



Funk & Wagnalls Recording. Printed in the USA // Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)// Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor; Symphonic Dances Opus 45, No.22 & 3; Vocalise Opus 34, No.14

Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Conducted by Michael Gielen. Pianist: Felicija Blumenthal

Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor

  • Moderato

  • Adagio sostenuto - Piu animato - Tempo 1

  • Allegro scherzando

I cannot describe, how thrilled I was the sound of my own music. I was in the seventh heaven. Tchaikovsky attended the last three rehearsals. We sat together in a corner of the darkened house. The conductor’s interpretation of certain parts did not please me. I remember the following dialogue between Tchaikovsky and myself: Tchaikovsky--’Do you like this tempo?’ I--’No’. Tchaikovsky could not stand it for long, and during an interval he cleared his throat and said, ‘Mr. Rachmaninoff and I think that the tempo here might be taken a little faster.’ “” sergei rachmaninoff