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Views And Reviews: Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto

Had Rachmaninov been a footballer, his manager would undoubtedly have announced, “This lad’s a natural”, writes Paul Serotsky.

“ Why? Because the fire and melancholy that are part and parcel of “Russian-ness” flowed so freely through his veins. Making no bones about it, Rachmaninov himself openly regarded his sleeve as a perfectly proper repository for his heart (“And good for him,” I say!).’’

Here Paul introduces the Russian composer’s Second Piano Concerto.

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Rachmaninov (1873-1943) – Piano Concerto No. 2

Rachmaninov admitted that he was influenced by both Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. In itself, that seems innocent enough, but gives us pause for thought when we remember that the Russian Nationalist Rimsky-Korsakov favoured “insularity” whilst Tchaikovsky, preferring Western European models, embraced “community”. Absorbing and reconciling conflicting elements such as these, Rachmaninov incorporated the best of both worlds.

Had he been a footballer, his manager would undoubtedly have announced, “This lad’s a natural”. Why? Because the fire and melancholy that are part and parcel of “Russian-ness” flowed so freely through his veins. Making no bones about it, Rachmaninov himself openly regarded his sleeve as a perfectly proper repository for his heart (“And good for him,” I say!).

All in all, it’s perhaps not surprising that “Insecurity” was his middle name. The First Symphony’s critical slating (1897) plunged him into a pool of despond, certainly as far as his faith in his composing abilities was concerned. Several hypnosis sessions were needed to shift his writer’s block. Just as quickly re-invigorated he penned the Second Piano Concerto (1900-1), a success both critical and popular for which the world will ever be in his debt.

Uncharacteristically for a Russian, he was marvellously adept at spinning out a long line. Characteristically for him, in his concertos he would festoon his “line” with incessant and elaborate pianistic “laundry”. Maybe this was his way of putting his insecurity where his heart was: it’s almost as if he was afraid to shut up for a second, lest he run dry.

Of the foremost pianist/composers, Chopin was a virtuoso pianist who – not to put too fine a point on it – couldn’t orchestrate to save his life, whilst Liszt was a virtuoso pianist who wrote plenty of highly original, purely orchestral music. There’s still a fairly common perception that, in this respect, Rachmaninov is nearer the former than the latter. This originally grew out of acoustic recordings where the piano was placed well forward, a practical necessity that became a habit.

Particularly as most folk knew his concerti only through recordings and radio, this inflated the relative importance of that incessant chattering and by default relegated Rachmaninov’s orchestration to the shadows. More recently, his straight symphonic music has moved back up the repertoire league table, providing ample evidence that he was no slouch when it came to brilliant orchestration.

Of course, in the concert hall, unless the performers deliberately contrive to perpetuate the myth, it’s a very different – and far more satisfying – story. We cannot but admire his astonishingly original presentation of the glorious opening subject of the Second Concerto – but why? Well, underlying the stunningly luscious melody is what appears to be a double rôle-reversal. Firstly, the piano swaps with the orchestra, introducing then accompanying the first subject. Secondly, this subject seems “feminine” – more what you’d expect of the less obviously showy second subject. When a friend mildly suggested that this opening sounded more like an introduction (ŕ la Tchaikovsky?) than a first subject, Rachmaninov promptly over-reacted, dismissing the whole first movement as “revolting”. Fortunate indeed are we that this genius was not quite so insecure as to make a habit of shredding his manuscripts!

Nor is the opening a one-off. Rachmaninov’s even-handedness is as pervasive as the formal inventiveness that passes almost unnoticed beneath the welter of hedonistic delights. He constantly reverses the rôles of accompanist and soloist, generating a true dialogue where one protagonist frequently passes a phrase to the other, even in “mid-sentence”. Thus, in spite of the abundance of pianistic pyrotechnics, Rachmaninov never lets us forget which of composer and virtuoso pianist comes first in his book.

1. Moderato. Bluff, and double bluff! Following the first subject, a flurry of excitement duly implies the arrival of a “masculine” second. Except it isn’t – compared to the first, it’s as feminine as silken lace. Gracefully, the cellos offer it to the piano, which with equal grace accepts the limelight. Then, another wonder: armed with only that brief flurry, Rachmaninov transmutes his embarrassment of lyrical riches into a development section of devastating dynamism. It is only in the reprise, as this energy subsides, that the orchestra cedes the first subject to the piano, which likewise yields to a solo horn in respect of the second.

2. Adagio sostenuto. Basically variations, this is also a fantasy told in purely musical terms. Of the piano’s opening arpeggios Christopher Howell perceptively observed, “Some notes . . . have special emphasis . . . these notes are off the beat, so that when the orchestra enters [they] seem slightly out of phase. [This] accounts for the . . . uneasy repose”. Yes, but what of the “cause”? Gradually, the piano becomes more agitated, eventually losing its rag in a cadential outburst. To quell its sulky scampering, the orchestra emits a mighty chord: “Alright, play your cadenza!” Formal protocol somewhat belatedly satisfied, tension dissipates and the piano overlays the returning serene melody with fulsome thankyous.

3. Allegro scherzando. Having cleared the air, the protagonists celebrate in no uncertain terms, kicking off with what amounts to a cadenza each. At the movement’s core, the fleet main theme is heartily tossed every which way, but at either side of this the secondary theme – not the Big Tune, but merely yet another big tune – remains respectfully unmolested. Until the coda, that is. Here, as at the very beginning, the orchestra plays whilst the piano supports, only now it is done in the grandest of manners – a gentle invitation for the audience to satisfy the demands of protocol.

© Paul Serotsky


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