Accompanied by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Evgeny Kissin performs Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. Conductor: Myung-Whun Chung. This performance was recorded at the Salle Pleyel, Paris, on September 19, 2014.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, stands as one of the most emblematic and beloved works in the piano concerto repertoire. Composed at the dawn of the 20th century, specifically between 1900 and 1901, this concerto marked a significant turning point in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s life and career. It is often seen as his comeback composition following a period of severe depression and creative drought that he suffered after the critical failure of his Symphony No. 1 in 1897.
The concerto is celebrated for its rich, romantic melodies and emotional depth. Rachmaninoff, known for his extraordinary skills as a pianist, infused the piece with both technical challenges and expressive opportunities, making it a favorite among pianists and audiences alike. The concerto starts with a series of solo piano chords that set a mood of solemn introspection, gradually building up to the orchestral entry and leading to themes that are at once passionate and lyrical.
Rachmaninoff’s use of the orchestra in this concerto is also noteworthy. He skillfully weaves the solo piano part with the orchestral texture, creating a dialogue between the soloist and the ensemble that ranges from intimate whispers to grand, sweeping statements. The orchestration is rich but never overpowering, always serving to enhance the expressive power of the piano.
The emotional journey of the concerto is widely attributed to Rachmaninoff’s personal struggles and his path to overcoming them. The piece is imbued with a sense of triumph over adversity, which resonates deeply with listeners. This aspect, combined with its lush harmonies and memorable melodies, has helped the concerto to maintain its place as a staple of the concert repertoire and a beloved piece among classical music enthusiasts.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 also had a significant impact on Rachmaninoff’s career, restoring his confidence as a composer and cementing his reputation. It was well-received by critics and the public, contrasting sharply with his earlier symphonic work’s reception. This success encouraged him to continue composing, leading to a prolific career that produced many more cherished works.
The first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, marked “Moderato,” is a masterful blend of dramatic intensity and lyrical beauty, setting the tone for the entire concerto. It begins with a distinctive opening that has become one of the most recognizable in all of piano literature: a series of eight solo piano chords, each growing progressively louder and more expansive. This opening serves as a canvas for the pianist’s expression, setting a solemn and introspective mood.
Following this introspective opening, the orchestra quietly enters, introducing the main theme. This theme is notable for its lyrical and expressive quality, showcasing Rachmaninoff’s gift for melody. The piano and orchestra engage in a rich dialogue, with the piano part weaving in and out of the orchestral texture. The interplay between the soloist and the orchestra is a key feature of this movement, showcasing both the piano’s virtuosic capabilities and its capacity for tender expression.
As the movement progresses, it builds in intensity, leading to a series of climaxes that are both emotionally charged and technically demanding for the pianist. Rachmaninoff’s own skills as a pianist are evident in the writing, with passages that require a great deal of technical prowess, yet always in service of the music’s expressive goals.
The development section of the movement is a journey through various moods and colors, featuring complex harmonies and intricate interplay between the piano and the orchestra. Rachmaninoff’s orchestration is lush and serves to amplify the emotional impact of the piano’s melodies.
The movement culminates in a powerful recapitulation of the main theme, where the initial mood of introspection returns, but now transformed and deepened by the journey that has taken place. The movement concludes with a coda that brings it to a dramatic close, leaving a lasting impression of both the thematic material and the emotional depth of the music.
2. Adagio sostenuto
The second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, labeled “Adagio sostenuto,” is a profound and deeply emotive piece, serving as the heart of the concerto. It stands in contrast to the dynamic and dramatic first movement, offering a space of introspective calm and lyrical beauty.
This movement opens with a soft, serene melody in the strings, setting a mood of gentle contemplation. The piano enters subtly, initially intertwining with the orchestral texture before gradually emerging as the central voice. The interplay between the piano and the orchestra in this movement is more intimate and conversational compared to the first movement, with the orchestra providing a lush, supportive backdrop to the piano’s lyrical expressions.
Rachmaninoff’s gift for melody is particularly evident in this movement. The main theme, first introduced by the orchestra and then taken up by the piano, is one of the composer’s most tender and heartfelt. It’s a melody that speaks directly to the listener’s emotions, embodying a sense of longing and introspection.
The central section of the movement brings a slight increase in tempo and a more passionate character. Here, the piano part becomes more elaborate and expressive, weaving intricate patterns around the orchestra’s thematic material. This section provides a contrast to the opening’s tranquility, adding depth and complexity to the movement’s emotional landscape.
The return to the main theme is marked by a sense of maturity and deepened emotion. The piano and orchestra reunite in a delicate balance, with the piano’s gentle lyricism complemented by the warm, supportive harmonies of the orchestra. The movement concludes with a quiet, reflective coda, bringing a sense of closure that is both peaceful and poignant.
3. Allegro scherzando
The finale of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, marked “Allegro scherzando,” is a vibrant and dynamic conclusion to the concerto. This movement contrasts sharply with the introspective and lyrical second movement, showcasing Rachmaninoff’s ability to write music that is both energetically virtuosic and melodically appealing.
This movement starts with a brisk and lively introduction by the orchestra, setting a spirited and somewhat playful tone. The piano soon enters with a burst of energy, introducing a theme that is both rhythmic and melodically engaging. The piano part in this movement is particularly challenging, featuring rapid passages, crisp articulation, and a demanding use of the entire keyboard. These technical demands highlight the pianist’s virtuosity, a hallmark of Rachmaninoff’s writing for the instrument, reflecting his own abilities as a pianist.
The interplay between the piano and orchestra in this movement is more animated and robust compared to the previous movements. The orchestra responds to and complements the piano’s energetic themes, adding to the movement’s overall sense of excitement and drive. The orchestration is rich and colorful, providing a vibrant backdrop to the piano’s acrobatics.
One of the notable features of this movement is its rhythmic vitality. Rachmaninoff employs a variety of rhythms that add to the sense of forward momentum and zest. This rhythmic complexity, coupled with the melodic inventiveness, makes the movement both engaging and challenging to perform.
Throughout the movement, Rachmaninoff weaves in elements of the themes from the previous movements, creating a sense of cohesion and unity within the concerto. These references are subtly integrated, enriching the movement’s texture and providing depth to its character.
The movement builds towards a thrilling conclusion, with the piano and orchestra engaging in a spirited dialogue. The final section is a display of exhilarating musical power, leading to a climactic and triumphant end. The movement concludes the concerto on a note of exhilaration and triumph, leaving a lasting impression of Rachmaninoff’s compositional genius.
- Piano Concerto No. 2 (Rachmaninoff) on Wikipedia
- Piano Concerto No.2, Op.18 (Rachmaninoff, Sergei) on the International Music Score Library Project website
- Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on the Los Angeles Philharmonic website
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