Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in Cm, op. 18

performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Jascha Horenstein, Earl Wild, piano

This may not be the most popular version of the work, but it’s the one I ‘learned’ this piece from; it’s the one I came to love this piece as a result of, and no other performance compares. It may be a bit brisker than a few other interpretations, but it’s perfect. These people knew what they were doing. 
and this is a must-watch

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 (Nikolai Lugansky) from Philharmonia Orchestra on Vimeo.

This is an important piece. I’d been thinking what to post to mark the one year anniversary of our little site here (we weren’t always at this location, but we are now), the end of September (9/29) marking a year since the first post. I mentioned all that above, but this was one of the first pieces I really started listening to after taking piano lessons. Prior to that, I’d been listening almost exclusively to the Chopin ballades and sonatas, as well as Schumann’s piano sonatas. I asked my teacher for suggestions on what I should know and listen to, and she suggested Rachmaninoff’s second and third concertos. I watched bits of Argerich’s performance of the third on YouTube, but the recording I got hold of were Earl Wild’s. I remember sitting on my couch listening to the third, kind of letting it wash over me with no real comprehension of it, except that the piano sounded very busy. I listened to it over and over and over again, and the second got into the mix, too. They quickly became favorites. I’d have lyrical bits of it stuck in my head or start humming a tune from somewhere in one of the two, and got familiar enough that I could keep playing the piece out in my head for long enough to identify which of the two it was.
They never really got old. I remember thinking that listening all the way through a 30-40 minute piece was kind of an arduous task, but I’d listen to it from beginning to end while walking my dog, and the more I listened, the shorter it seemed to get.
To commemorate an entire year of listening and writing (now so much more organized than back then), it came down to one of these two pieces. I decided on the second for two reasons: first, because they come in that order, and second, of the two, it’s the one I had my heart set on learning to play in 15-20 years. I’ve tinkered those famously huge opening chords on the piano so many times…. So here it is, a piece I love and have been considering talking about for a year now, but figured…. It needed to wait. Here we are.
Having listened to it so many times, especially from a standpoint (back then) ignorant of form

or themes or anything, it is strange now to go back and listen analytically to something I feel so familiar with. It’s hard. Also, there’s always pressure when talking about something so well known. This is easily the most well known of Rachmaninoff’s concerti, perhaps his most famous work, and perhaps the most famous piano concerto in the repertoire. It is quite an enduring work.

As a result, I won’t go through a play-by-play of the piece, unless it comes to that.
The piece was published in 1902, after a long hiatus from writing and related depression brought on by the severe rejection of his first symphony, generally regarded as a disaster. It is now looked upon far more favorably, but at the time was my welcomed warmly, or really at all. His first piano concerto was also not really considered a success. The second concerto was apparently originally planned for an 1899 premiere in London before the composer’s breakdown, but I’m not sure how much of it had been written, if any, at the time.
The composer stopped composing and in his depression, found a doctor Nikolai Dahl to work with him, apparently by means of hypnotherapy, etc. The piece to bring him out of this dry spell is the second piano concerto, and it was dedicated to this doctor who had worked with him and brought him so far. Needless to say, it was a raging success.
The man did much better with his number twos than his number ones. His second symphony is also a stunning composition.
Premieres of the work were given by the composer himself at the piano, and it has become one of the most popular (again, if not THE most popular) piano concerti in the repertoire.
Before I keep babbling on, I want to interject how much I love the Philharmonia Orchestra’s social media stuff on their website (and their YouTube account), and this fantastic introduction to the piece by genius pianist Nikolai Lugansky, who I’m surprised isn’t like…. hailed as one of the greatest living pianists. Maybe he is. Anyway, if you haven’t watched the above video with him, watch it now.
While it perhaps doesn’t have the reputation for frightening difficulty that its older brother no. 3 has, it is by no means a walk in the park. Rachmaninoff very successfully displays here his strongest qualities: amazing lyricism, rich Russianness, virtuoso pianism, and absurdly large hands. All of these are very apparent in the writing for this piece. The orchestration is also lush and intense, while Rachmaninoff himself had no issues standing up to the sounds of an entire orchestra from the piano.
I want to say here that I’m not going to analyze the piece really critically and talk about it from the standpoint of harmonies and structures and all that. While it’s perfectly pleasing to hear from almost any perspective, it’s truly fascinating to understand the hows and whys of what is going on here. I’d originally written a lot of that from some research I did online, but most of it is regurgitation of that info because I don’t really completely understand it anyway. For something really thorough and fascinating, have a look at this PDF here that someone wrote as a thesis that’s now online.  It’s quite fantastic. Also, watch Lugansky’s discussion above.
That famous bell-like toll of the enormous chords at the beginning rather define the emotion of this piece. They also seem to be common in his works. His first piano sonata opens eerily and beautifully with similar toll-like chiming.
After those first eight bars (that may be split slightly, but should NEVER be rolled; heard it once before and hated it; as a side note, Earl Wild also had enormous hands and still broke the chords up at the beginning, playing the whole note F in the bass separately from the rest of the chord. It seems many people have gotten used to that).
After this towering entrance, it’s like jumping off a cliff, the strings and clarinet entering with the main theme like the wind in your face, the rushing arpeggios from the piano also quite harrowing. This opening is so amazingly enjoyable that you may not notice that quite a large amount of material for this entire concerto had already been established. It may not be readily apparent, but it’s so organic and kind of naturally related that it’s almost an afterthought. It’s very tightly woven.
The piece opens in Cm, with a second subject in E flat major, with sections in Gm. There are a few distinct sections in the development of the first movement, all related by common ideas (inversions, rhythms, etc.) The recapitulation is marked maestoso (alla marcia) and the first subject comes back, as does the second, and is in three parts.
I could continue to talk about the second movement being in E major and the different keys its in as it moves through its ABA form and the cadenzas in each movement and the loose sonata form of the third repeating and reinventing ideas from the very beginning in exciting and inventive ways, but I really just want to talk about how the music makes me feel.
Like I said earlier, it’s like diving off a cliff into a rich, dark, dramatic landscape, something underwater, perhaps. Rachmaninoff is such a skilled lyricist, so Russian and so classically Romantic. The piece is absolutely seamless. I had originally written a lot of information about the key changes and sections and where they’re introduced and how they’re marked and what they refer to from the opening material and all that, but it’s almost completely unnoticeable to me without the score. I don’t have perfect pitch, and I can’t really notice key changes, The whole piece is just one long, glorious, spine-tinglingly satisfying story.
This was kind of the first piano concerto I really ‘got used to’ (along with the third), and so I got accustomed to the role the piano plays here, in most places working in perfect harmony (literally and figuratively) with the orchestra, and the balance between the two entities.
Something that is nice in this piece for a beginner is that little bits of the development are recognizable as originating in the exposition, and you can kind of see what he did with them, even if you can’t explain how he did it or what’s different or what happened. There are so many high points in this piece in the first movement alone, shimmering strings, climactic piano moments, like the marchy end of the development and entry of the first subject. Nothing in the first movement (or really in the entire piece) comes off as gratuitous or unnecessary. It all plays its part, stays exciting and interesting and beautiful, and all ‘fits’ with the general mood of the piece without becoming sappy or anything. There’s such variation, too, with a clarinet solo, flute, horn, cello all at different parts. The end of the first movement is dramatic and commanding, but then in the first four bars, we transition beautifully, seamlessly from Cm into E major and begin a long, nocturnal, lyrical beautiful flowing line that is the middle movement. The flute enters over the piano and the clarinet then introduces the main theme of the middle movement, and it’s just somehow perfect. Everything is in place. After this is established, the roles reverse: piano picks up the melody and clarinets accompany, along with first violins. This middle section provides the perfect balance since it’s bookended by two quite lively, intense movements, the first more dark and dramatic, the third more exciting and energetic. But for now, there is wonderful beauty and pause in this middle section, although even it gets a bit lively with some quite busy piano work in the middle section that leads into the cadenza for this movement. It feels like that’s going to take us into the third movement, but it quiets down again and puts us back to the A section of the piece, the flute ending the cadenza, and the main theme from the beginning coming right back so perfectly.
The third movement also has a transition of a few bars that slip us back into Cm, and the movement begins almost mischievously, or jokingly with a few question and answer bits between strings, but it gets serious quickly, and piano enters. It starts to feel much more like the first movement pretty, and there’s some chatter between the woodwinds and the piano, and then there’s one of the most gripping moments of the entire piece, where the strings make a commanding entrance. The piano follows with a cadenza, followed again by those two notes in strings, and the third movement is in full swing. It’s amazing. We are in a loose sonata form here, and the piano is definitely taking the lead. It’s just such damn beautiful music. What Rachmaninoff does with strings…. and the piano. The third movement feels like an exultation. Yes, it’s in a minor key and all that, but there’s something triumphant and confident and empowered about it… that keeps the drama of the first movement in the background, but perhaps it’s that the piano (I feel) shows off a lot more here, and it all makes me think about the history of this piece, Rachmaninoff’s having conquered a few rough years of depression and fear of composing, and having triumphed over that. That same dark, kind of ominous power from the beginning is still here, but it’s tempered by a positive commanding sort of energy from the piano that’s different from the beginning (again, to me). It’s almost celebratory, but not in any cliché, annoying sort of way. It has its moments of quiet lyricism, but the very same material we’ve been hearing is recycled and yet remains interesting all the way to the end. Coming out of that quieter (beautiful) passage just a few minutes from the end, the piece begins to build again, slowly, but the tension tells us we’re charging unstoppably toward the end, and we’re okay with that. It’s almost like the credits are starting to roll. The pizzicato notes over the cellos feel almost like the beginning of the credits starting to roll, and the orchestra roars again before another cadenza. Would this be considered a coda? I’m not sure, but that final glorious minute never fails to give me chills as much as the opening eight bars.
This piece has everything. It’s a bit longer than some of the Music you can understand pieces that I’ve featured, and perhaps a bit more complicated, but it’s dramatic and beautiful and moving and intense, and uses the same few basic ideas in a plethora of different ways to express so many different emotions. It is a half hour of incredible piano virtuosity, amazing compositional imagination, rich gorgeous orchestrations and just really stinking enjoyable music. Bravo, Rachmaninoff.
I can’t imagine coming off of a successful piece like this not feeling like I could conquer the world. It’s almost as if he could hear the success of this piece before it was premiered, and like he felt the relief it brought him before it happened, and you can hear his confidence as the piece plays out. It swells and grows and it’s clear why this is a gem in not only the composer’s oeuvre, but in the piano repertoire in general. This is all why, of any concerto in the repertoire, if I could choose to spend the next few decades of my life learning to play (ever so poorly) one piece, it would be this one. Perhaps one day…..

3 thoughts on “Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in Cm, op. 18

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