Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor

Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1873-1943.
Concerto No.2 in C Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op.18. Completed 1901, first performance October 27, 1901, in Moscow. Scored for 2 each flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, tympani, cymbals, bass drum, solo piano, and strings.

Ever since the success of the Academy-Award-winning movie Shine in 1996, the so-called ``Rach 3'' has been indelibly engraved in the public mind as ``the'' Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Yet for nearly a century it had been an earlier work, the Second, that consistently won accolades and enthralled audiences, and the composer's struggle to complete that concerto is surely as fascinating as that of David Helfgott, the pianist at the center of Shine, to master the Third.

Sergei Rachmaninoff's difficulties began in 1897, when his newly completed First Symphony was viciously denounced by critics-one even suggested that the work might have been produced by ``a Conservatory in Hell.'' The young man was devastated, and for several years had great difficulty applying himself to his work. At the same time, he was struggling financially, a situation not helped by the fact that his publisher had neglected to obtain an international copyright on the very popular Prelude in C sharp Minor, so that it was reproduced indiscriminately in Britain and the U.S.without proper payment.

Things finally came to a head in January of 1900, when the composer visited Leo Tolstoy. Rachmaninoff played the piano for the legendary writer, who reacted by saying, ``Tell me, is such music needed by anybody?... I must tell you how I dislike it all!... Beethoven is nonsense, Pushkin and Lermontov also.''

``It was awful,'' recalled Rachmaninoff. Later in the evening, Tolstoy apologized. ``Please excuse me,'' he said. ``I am an old man. I did not mean to hurt you.'' Rachmaninoff's rejoinder was quick. ``How could I be hurt on my own account, if I was not hurt on Beethoven's?'' Nevertheless, he went into a deep depression and stopped composing altogether.

His cousins, with whom he had a close relationship, talked him into seeing an acquaintance of theirs, Dr.Nikolai Dahl. Dahl, himself an amateur musician, had become interested in hypnosis and had devoted his practice to it. He combined that technique with pleasant and intelligent conversations about music, and Rachmaninoff began to improve rapidly. By summer he had started on the new concerto. Work now progressed rapidly, and by the end of the year he played the last two movements in a December concert in Moscow. He then turned to the first movement, with its dramatic and moody opening chords, and completed it very quickly.

Unlike that of the symphony, the premiere of the Second Concerto (dedicated to Dahl) was a success, and it quickly became a staple in concert halls everywhere-and although Shine has brought much well-deserved attention to the Third, there is little doubt that the earlier piece will soon regain its rightful place in the hearts of audiences everywhere.

© 2000, Geoff Kuenning

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