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Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Born April 1, 1873, in Semyonovo, Russia
Died March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, CA

Rachmaninoff played the solo part in the first performance in Moscow, on October 27, 1901, under the direction of Alexander Siloti.

Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his Second Piano Concerto in 1900–1901, shortly after the greatest trauma in his life up to that point. Three years earlier, he had composed a symphony that met with a disastrous reception at the St. Petersburg premiere. The composer fell into a severe depression and became unable to write any music. In his despair, he turned to a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Dahl, who used hypnosis to restore Rachmaninoff’s faith in his own creative powers. When the composer was finally cured, he expressed his gratitude by dedicating his new concerto to Dr. Dahl.

Rachmaninoff had a matchless gift for melody. He could make the piano ‟sing” with the passion of an operatic hero, though at the same time he also had it perform the most dazzling musical acrobatics with fiendish arpeggios and other types of passage work. The piano is the protagonist throughout, but there are times when the pianistic fireworks merely serve as an accompaniment to the melody presented in the orchestra.

Each of the concerto’s three movements contains numerous tempo changes in accordance with the evolution of the musical characters. But the unity of the work is ensured by the thematic recapitulations prescribed by classical rules. Rachmaninoff counterbalanced his effusive, hyper-Romantic melodic writing by an almost academic adherence to traditional musical craft with regard to form. One structural detail is particularly revealing: he scored the second-movement Adagio sostenuto in E major, a tonality far removed from C minor, the concerto’s home key; but he bridged the gap between those two keys by modulating passages that open both the second and third movements. Both Beethoven in his Third Piano Concerto and Brahms in his First Symphony had used this C minor/E major relationship between their respective first and second movements. In both cases, one may hear the jump between the two unrelated tonalities. Not so in Rachmaninoff. His ‟bridges” between movements exemplify something he strove to do throughout the concerto, namely to eliminate all‟rough edges”and create a flow of great melodies unimpeded by any breaks in the continuous unfolding of the musical events.

Program notes by ©  Peter Laki