This is intimidating. I guess everything about this piece is except for listening to it, and sometimes even that.
There’s so. much. to. say. about this piece that I almost don’t want to try. There are so many theses, recordings, liner notes, program notes, concert talks and everything else about this piece that it would be ludicrous for me to think I have anything else to add but my own opinion and feelings of the piece, so that’s pretty much all I’m going to share, aside from some basics. For the technical bits (as technical as we’ll get), please watch Nikolai Lugansky’s introduction above about the main themes in the piece and how all three movements are really quite unified in their use and treatment of the basic ideas in the work. If you read nothing else below, watch the above introduction a few times, and listen to the concerto as a scavenger hunt of sorts for the themes Lugansky presented in all their various appearances and forms.
Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto was used to commemorate our one-year anniversary back in October. This piece marks our 100th music post, and I figured this piece was as good as any for a centennial. In short, my real concerted study of music began with piano lessons and an effort to come to understand and be familiar with as much of the piano repertoire as possible. On the (one of my first if not the very) first piano lesson, I asked my piano teacher for some recommendations for what I should begin to be familiar with, what every music student or aficionado knows and loves and should be familiar with. I’d already started listening to lots of Chopin’s works for piano. She wrote down “Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos 2 and 3” but emphasized especially the third. I went home and checked it out. All 40-plus minutes of it washed over me a few times, and it felt like homework the first few go-rounds, but I was kind of just blown away by the magnitude of the work, not necessarily in its length, but its content.
At that time Mahler was the only conductor whom I considered worthy to be classed with Nikisch. He devoted himself to the concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to perfection, although he had already gone through another long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important — an attitude too rare amongst conductors. … Though the rehearsal was scheduled to end at 12:30, we played and played, far beyond this hour, and when Mahler announced that the first movement would be rehearsed again, I expected some protest or scene from the musicians, but I did not notice a single sign of annoyance. The orchestra played the first movement with a keen or perhaps even closer appreciation than the previous time.
To be a fly on the wall in that concert hall. Anyway, it’s scored for a pretty typical orchestra, and is in the pretty typical three movements. It seems to be one of the most recorded piano concertos of all time. Vladimir Horowitz had a close relationship with the composer and it was apparently one of his recordings of the piece in the 30s that helped it to gain some degree of the popularity it now has. We’ll talk about recordings a bit later, though.
As Lugansky mentions, the movement opens almost kind of unassumingly with a simple melody in octaves on the piano that even I can play. As Lugansky says, the underlying material for the whole concerto is presented here, as it shows up in all three movements.
That only lasts a few bars, over orchestra accompaniment, before the piece explodes into virtuosity that doesn’t end for the entire movement. Even when the orchestra picks up the melody that the piano introduced, the piano hasn’t disappeared. It’s still there, under the beautiful orchestral writing, performing piano acrobatics that Ms. Argerich seems very into.
Perhaps it’s the scope and content that this movement covers, but it seems a lot longer than 15 minutes. That’s not to say that it’s a chore to listen to. It’s absolutely blissful, but it’s hard to believe, by the time it’s over, that only fifteen minutes have passed. There is so much beauty and so much packed into this one sonata-form movement, that it seems like it can’t have all fit. There are two cadenzas here, too. There’s an ossia for the first one, which is apparently the original cadenza the composer wrote for the piece, but replaced by a later, more difficult and much livelier one. The piano finally stops its antics long enough for us to take a breath and focus on a restatement of the opening theme, but it’s not gone for long.
Do I need to state explicitly how shimmeringly beautiful and exactly, perfectly, sumptuously Romantic Rachmaninoff’s writing is? The piece began kind of “calm before the storm” -ishly in Dm, but it reaches a moment of glorious brilliance here, before the other really important theme shows up. It makes its entrance almost playfully as a response to the orchestra, and Lugansky refers to it as the ‘scherzo’ theme. While it’s jumpy and kind of playful at first, it shows up just a few bars later as a stunningly beautiful lyrical theme, perhaps one of the highlights of the whole concerto. The opening material returns in the development and if you’re like me, you can almost feel the cadenza coming on, and it’s practically hair-raising, but it’s not here yet. The orchestra and the piano together climb higher and higher, and it’s absolute electrifying. It calms back down before the cadenza begins, and it’s almost like the orchestra is calling out from behind the piano.
The cadenza begins, and it is massive. It’s tiring to look at in the score. The flute comes in at the tail-end, and then oboe, clarinet, and horn, before the rest of (or another?) cadenza. They focus (as one may expect) on the main themes, and when the second (or rest of the first) ends lyrically and peacefully, the recapitulation begins. There’s some more excitement on the piano, and there’s brass. After so much energy and excitement, the movement roars a bit more, but ends quietly and almost abruptly on two. short. notes.
The second movement is the Intermezzo. It is the shortest of the three, but by no means insignificant. It’s marked Adagio, and although the first movement had some beautiful lyrical moments, this is the where it’s at. It’s the middle movement, the slow one, and it’s gorgeous. The piano doesn’t enter for a little while, but when it does, it’s almost like it’s crashing the party. It gets a cadenza here, too, and it isn’t a small one. Maybe that isn’t a cadenza; not all 100% solo, but still tons of virtuoso stuff happening. Once the orchestra and piano finally seem to fall in place together (rehearsal mark 30), it feels like they’re finally in synch, and for whatever reason, I always envisioned synchronized swimmer/dancers in pools with fountains and lights, maybe something from Las Vegas, but not tacky, something really classy and artistic, from perhaps the 40s… it sounds right in my head. Anyway, it’s just lush and gorgeous and rich. It’s even more together at mark 31. This is one of the moments in the piece that made perhaps one of the greatest impressions on me, but beauty like that can’t go on for too long or it would be almost sickening. It’s a wonderful climax to a busy intermezzo movement. The overwhelming beauty might have gone, but the busy virtuoso piano line hasn’t. In looking at the score, it’s almost like this entire movement is just a ten-minute piano cadenza with occasional orchestral accompaniment. I only realized it when I looked at the score, because sometimes the orchestra distracts you from what’s going on in the piano, but it’s intense. Clarinet gets a solo when things quiet down a bit, strings swell back up, and the piano returns just before the end of this movement to roar in, start galloping and lead us attacca into the third and final movement. This one also, if you’ll notice, ends. on. two. notes. and a pregnant pause right before dashing into the third movement.
It’s marked all breve and is the closest thing to a march we get in the whole piece. If the first movement was dark and stormy drama, the second virtuosic lyricism, then the third is unbridled energy and excitement. Another theme that Lugansky showed us shows up here, and it leads into a commanding, crunchy orchestra part. At this point, mind you, we’re only half-ish way through the score. I always say I won’t do a play-by-play, but I always end up doing it. After two movements of the caliber and excitement and intensity that we had, the third really has to be something to be a fitting finale, and it is. It may be my favorite movement of the piece, but I always forget it until I listen through to it. The first movement is so stunningly powerful and rich, and the second so beautiful that I forget how amazing the third is. It’s a fitting conclusion to the whole piece. How do you top what we’ve already heard? It has everything. There are moments of calm beauty, passion, playfulness, and a few really high climaxes, but it doesn’t disappoint. It ends on a happy note. It’s not exhausting and dark and brooding or stormy like many of the moments throughout the piece (and Rachmaninoff’s career). I love the moments where there’s a solo flute or oboe or bassoon with the piano, and there are significant passages in the third movement like that. You can forget that you’re in the finale, but perhaps it’s a necessary break. After that sweet middle section, we are reminded that we’re galloping excitedly toward the end of the piece. A lot of this, while related, feels like freshly new material.
As for recordings, there is no lack of options here. I have listened to at least one or two of Lugansky’s, and was greatly impressed by his performance(s). I also just like to listen to him explain music. Even in the video above, it seems quite easy for him. The recordings I got familiar with from the get go with all of Rachmaninoff’s concerti were from Earl Wild and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Jascha Horenstein. Earl Wild’s performances were just…. practically flawless. Like, really amazing, and I was glad they were the recordings I got comfortable with. The only reason he didn’t get the feature on this piece is because of some cuts to the piece. After listening to Argerich (a pretty standardly bat-out-of-hell fast performer) and certainly Ashkenazy’s performance under Fistoulari (so. slow.), Wild seems breakneck fast, but I don’t mind that. Argerich’s performance here is considered landmark, and I have watched the video above of her performing it on many occasions. I have never cared for practically any of Horowitz’s recordings of almost anything. I know he’s one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, and he seemed like a downright delightful person, and he has as close a connection to the composer as anyone, but I find him to be percussive and…. just yeah.
This was the first piano concerto I really got to know, and was thusly the one that every other piano concerto was measured against. It has everything. Rachmaninoff is obviously very Russian, and even within that categorization has his own unique idiom, so I know full well it isn’t (wasn’t; I don’t really anymore) fair to compare everything to this piece, but this was the piano concerto for me. If it wasn’t as Russian, wasn’t as Romantic, wasn’t as intense, wasn’t as frighteningly energetic and encompassing, it felt inferior. For example, Chopin’s first piano concerto was another one I started listening to quite early, and relative to this one, it felt like a downright bore. That’s not a criticism of the Chopin; it’s a beautiful piece in its own right, but is, again, 100 years removed from the era Rachmaninoff absolutely typified and embodied in this work of genius. This is a pinnacle of the piano concerto repertoire, of the form, and while there are others that for various reasons are considered as difficult or worse (Argerich apparently refuses to learn the Bartok concertos, for instance), on the whole, all things considered, this is a damn good piece of music, a nearly perfect one, and it has stood up to at least 60 listens of the Wild recording alone. That maybe doesn’t sound like as many as I thought. In any case, it’s a gem.
Thanks for hanging around with us for 100 musical posts, long-winded, sub-professional and highly opinionated impressions of classical music and my adventures through it. It’s perhaps more interesting if you know me personally, but I’m doing my level best to familiarize myself and my reader(s) (all eleven of you) with as much of the good stuff as possible, and to try to make this stuff as exciting, interesting, and accessible as possible. Thanks for reading. Share my little site with everyone you know, and I welcome feedback, emails, responses, criticisms, enthusiasms and any kind of interaction. Hope to chat with you soon, and happy listening!