Love Affair with Sergei Rachmaninoff and His Piano Concerto No. 2

I’ve had another sudden affair with Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) as of late. That isn’t to say the affair hasn’t gone on for years. I adore him. But periodically I’m reminded of that love when I listen to him; his brilliance streams through the speakers as if he’s written each piece especially for me. He hasn’t, I know, and I’ve never met him. But I can’t deny I love him all over again with each stroke of the piano key or the breath of the oboe and flute.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, c. 1901, the year Piano Concerto No. 2 premiered

I’m attracted in particular to Sergei’s (may I call him by his first name, after all?) Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, op. 18. I admit I was drawn to it more after seeing The Seven Year Itch. Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) fantasized about performing the concerto to woo his neighbor, remarkably performed by Marilyn Monroe. She sauntered into his apartment; her elegant gold and black tiger print lamé gown and black arm-length gloves sparkled in the candlelight, and she draped herself onto the piano. She described Rachmaninoff’s concerto best when she said:

“It shakes me! It quakes me! It makes me feel goose-pimply all over!”

(watch the three minute scene)

Rachmaninoff composed the piece between 1900 to 1901 and it became the hallmark of his fame. His first concerto premiered in 1897 and was a disaster (it probably didn’t help that the conductor, Alexander Glazunov, was reportedly intoxicated at the time). Rachmaninoff suffered from depression and self-deprecation following this fiasco, began drinking, and was in need of outside help. He sought this in his psychologist and hypnotist Nicolai Dahl. The creative genius was revived within the composer and he was ready to begin writing once again. The result was his C minor concerto.

The opening movement, Moderato, is enough to make anyone feel “goose-pimply” with its opening droll on the piano and smooth entrance into the orchestration with the strings and clarinet leading the way. It’s dramatic, impressive, and thrilling.

The second movement, Adagio Sostenuto, is breathtaking, with the woodwinds leading the piano along its musical journey. It is extraordinary that a man with amazing strength and dexterity in his fingers can still grace the keys with a delicacy one would have caressing the petal of a rose.

The third and final movement, Allegro Scherzando, is a return to his power. He uses a particular melody three times in this movement, which was later recorded by Frank Sinatra (and others) after Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman picked up on it and titled it: Full Moon and Empty Arms. The finale ends with a burst of stimulating energy from both the orchestra and piano.

Rachmaninoff was unnerved by the concerto’s anticipated Oct. 27, 1901 premiere, but it was an instant success and continues to live on in our archives and movies.

Thank you, Marilyn.

Meet you at the piano, Sergei.

What about you? What works of Rachmaninoff do you enjoy most?

(See Hélène Grimaud perform Rachmaninoff’s C minor Piano Concerto)

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10 Responses to Love Affair with Sergei Rachmaninoff and His Piano Concerto No. 2

  1. Hermione says:

    What fortune! I’m not the only one who feels so passionately about this music! I’m primarily a violist, and I certainly prefer strings to piano, but every single time I listen to Rachmaninoff, I dearly wish I had kept playing piano instead. His concerto is breathtakingly beautiful beyond description.

  2. My first hearing of the Rachmaninoff Concerto #2 was a Sviatoslav Richter recording from the 1960’s. I believe it was done in Russia with a Russian conductor, maybe Kondrashin. The opening chords gave me such a thrill, I will never forget the feeling. I decided that I must perform the work. I made my concerto debut with the second in San Antonio in 1971 and in 2003 I had the opportunity to record the concerto with the Slovak Symphony in Bratislava. (Crys1005). Together with the Rhapsody, I still believe that these are some of the greatest works in our piano literature and I never tire of performing or teaching them.

  3. Phillip Nones says:

    I prefer later Rachmaninov, actually. A bit less of the heart-on-sleeve passion and a bit more irony thrown in.

    Of course, there’s the Paganini Rhapsody, but I’m most fond of the Piano Concerto #4 (Earl Wild/Jascha Horenstein is just the best in this work) … and the Symphonic Dances (Neeme Jarvi’s Chandos recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra is great).

  4. David says:

    I love the Rachmaninoff’s – Solo for Piano and Violin. The recording I have is truncated and I can’t listen to the whole piece, but I enjoy and love what I can hear. I’ve been trying to find the actual title of this but have been unsuccessful.

    • J.M. Lacey says:

      @David–hmmm. Not sure. There’s “Liebesfreud” (Love’s Joy) for violin and piano? Another thing you might try is this link to Amazon with Rachmaninoff’s complete recordings: http://amzn.to/pohQZc
      See if any of those titles look or sound familiar? Let me know if you find it!

  5. Alex Levine says:

    Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19

  6. Gordon says:

    Hi
    I love this work too. I also like the way you have explained it all. This is what audiences the world over need to know to undrstand some of these major works.

    Gordon

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