Rachmaninoff Symphony no. 2

This article has been marked as in need of a revisit. That’s where I feel like I didn’t do the piece justice or have more to say (usually because I didn’t know it nearly well enough or didn’t have the right perspective). I’ll keep the original article for posterity, but publish a new version that will eventually be linked here for my new take on it.

performed by the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky

This piece was written in 1906-07 and premiered in 1908 with the composer conducting. 
I will talk about some of its background at the end, when it’s all in context. 
The first three minutes of the first movement of this piece make up a long introduction, and set us up for the emotion that is to follow. Low dramatic strings roll in, and high sobbing ones flow over them in a wave of sorrow. It sounds cliche, but if you listen, you’ll agree. 
Who doesn’t love an English horn (or any double reed) solo? We get one here, and it marks the end of the introduction, reminiscing briefly on that material, as if holding on to a past memory before moving on to new things. This new theme isn’t happy, per se, but certainly a far cry from the sorrow and beautiful despair that opened the piece. It’s sweeping and emotional, but of hope, not sorrowful or desperate as at the outset. A solo clarinet leads into the next section, which is even more beautiful. Like, ineffably so. The strings swell over the woodwinds and it feels like the whole hall is going to take flight. This same motif plays in the strings over tiddly bits in the woodwinds (and other strings; I haven’t the score in front of me). There’s something triumphant and important about the horns here, and we begin to get an idea of what this piece will be like. The mood has been set. It’s about hope, which itself is beautiful. 
Also, this first movement is a long one. We get to the repeat of the exposition
more than nine minutes in. This first movement alone is pushing 25 minutes. It is a beautiful 25 minutes, maybe my favorite of the symphony. I was reading a great article about this symphony on the Interwebs where the writer suggested this as a good first symphony to serve as an introduction to classical music for someone who isn’t familiar with or thinks they don’t like the genre, if classical can even be considered a genre. Without that genre, we arguably wouldn’t have most other genres in western music today. But more on that later. 
Anyway, aside from this being extraordinarily beautiful, it has a structure with individual themes that are easy to identify, as well as a navigable development section, where even a beginner can hear the familiar themes and how they transform and are manipulated and return back to the originals in a moment of glory, to my ear in a different key (maybe…?) . It really is stupendous. The coda is exciting and pushes forward to the rest of the piece, maybe even foreshadows the second movement. It ends frantically and Russian-ly on a full-orchestra chord and a crash from the bass drum (and timpani?). 
I won’t do much more play-by-play, because the first movement is my favorite. Also, it makes up nearly half of the work. Certainty sets the tone. 
The second movement begins almost unnervingly with strings and horns and tons of energy, in an inspiring, ALMOST marchy, nervous kind of way. Different instruments compete for the spotlight before a solo clarinet puts a stop to all the madness and there is silence before another theme shows up, also drenched in Rachmaninoff’s rich Russian romanticism. A fugue ensues with the violins, and I find it almost grating. Thankfully brass and percussion kick in and balance everything out, and it’s a bit less frenetic. Another loud crash comes in, the same one that shocked us into the fugue, and we are back at the original theme from this movement. Again the clarinet brings with it the sweeping dramatic beauty from earlier, almost a Hollywood-like movie style theme. In this ABA motif, with a couple of minutes left in the movement, there is only a coda left, a nice little gem for us to enjoy: the dies irae! It starts to eke out with a little over a minute left in my recording. Going back to the beginning of this movement and listening for it, you can identify it, but I did not at first listen. The rhythm and context are different. Truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have picked up on it for at least a few more very attentive listens, but I read about it in some research, and there it is! I usually look for it in Rach pieces, as it shows up quite often; it’s like an audio version of “Where’s Waldo?”). Sneaky little guy. This movement unassumingly dies away and leads into the third. 
As a side note, when I saw this performed last week (by the orchestra of a local music school, the best one in the country, also where my piano teacher attends, and where she teaches me!), they retuned before they began the third movement. Some people switched instruments I guess. 
The third movement is just…. Gushingly, dramatically, sweetly, tenderly beautiful, almost to a fault. Seriously. In the performance I saw of this last week, I noticed a few parts that I hadn’t heard in recordings. This happens when you watch people play. Mostly the clarinet. I noticed there were a number of clarinet solos interspersed throughout this piece: a few in the first movement, important ones in the second, but this one in the third movement takes the cake, and the young man played it exquisitely and delicately. A long lyrical line that sounds like it takes tons of air to play just right, clear and supported and full over the orchestra, but not too loud. 
In this passage, I (maybe erroneously) hear hints of the first 
movement, maybe just in the key… Again, no score before me, but it is the epitome of drippy, dramatic, emotional Russian slow-movement music. 14 minutes of it. There’s a climax right in the middle of it, and we get exact quotes of the first movement played here and there before it fades to silence and picks up again. 
This movement has apparently been plagiarized multiple times for modern pop music, but I’m not familiar with those songs, so this movement didn’t bring them to mind. What I said about the “genre” of classical music being responsible for modern western music… there.
Honestly, by the time this movement is over, we’re ready for something slightly less sweetly sentimental and mushy. We get it with the fourth movement, and it begins with a march that feels crunchy relative to the soft sweetness of the previous movement. It’s something to sink your teeth into. We get, yet again, a big typical Rach tune, and I’m running out of gushy emotional words to describe these sorts of passages without sounding cliche. 
I must say, at this point, we begin to feel like we’ve heard some of this before, but we really don’t mind. We have about ten minutes left, and have already been here for about 50. This is another one of those lines that you’ll be humming to yourself, that will stick with you after you’ve heard this piece. There were at least three in the first movement, one in the second, a few in the third, and now this. This symphony is packed with these melodies and highlights. They will be what pull a casual listener back to enjoy (at least part of) this piece again, and what makes it enjoyable for a beginner listener, someone not listening intently for modulations, sonata form, recapitulation, the dies irae, etc. and can just enjoy its sheer beauty. At about halfway thru this movement, (I know I said I want going to do anymore play-by-play, but here we are. I’m listening to it now), this theme ends and we get what sounds very coda-like. It’s exciting and suspenseful but bright and energetic too, and it sounds like what he ended the piano concertos 2 and 3 with. There are little snippets of the first movement here, and we are starting to think this is what’s going to take us right to the end. Violas and violins start on a downward scale, then flutes join in, percussion gets louder, the whole thing starts to gain momentum. The theme from the beginning of this movement returns, but just for a stint. I honestly feel bad about saying this because it’s Rachmaninoff, but at this point, I’m almost ready for this to be over. There are only two or three minutes left, but this symphony is a huge one, and there’s not a moment’s breath from something intensely emotional. I feel like this could be spliced apart and the material used to develop two or three separate symphonies. Let these beauties breathe a bit. It’s like a great wine that just came out of the bottle. 
The piece ends in a swirling fury of strings and percussion and general triumph and celebration. 
That being said, it doesn’t feel as much like the “ad astra per aspera” journey that the Sibelius piece did. It’s more what a literature teacher would call “internal conflict”, and that rather makes sense when you know what Rach was going through at the time. He had had a serious fight with depression after his first symphony, a hectic performance schedule, and was mortified of writing another symphony after the first was received so disastrously. The overwhelming success of his piano concerto #2 was still not enough to encourage him to give it another go. But eventually he did, out at his summer house where he could focus. 
This piece, as I have said, is LONG, and for some time in the 20th century, revised (shorter) versions of it were popular, some as short as half an hour. Thankfully, both the recording I have and the performance I saw were of the full version. 
It is obviously genuinely supreme writing, but it’s almost a bit over the top. I did enjoy seeing it live. The rest of the world sort of disappears at symphony hall, and it’s one of the best ways (who are we kidding? It’s THE best way to experience) this kind of music, so I loved being able to completely focus and be completely absorbed in it, but unless you can devote your full attention to this one, it does tend to go on. That’s been my issue with addressing Mahler here… Haven’t gotten there yet. Bruckner was a challenge, but I will definitely get around to them both; it just takes significantly more time and attention to grasp such expansive pieces as a whole. 
I just wrote so much I don’t know what else to write. Good symphony. Very long. Very Russian. Very romantic. Go listen.

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