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Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

About the Work

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Quick Look Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: James Gaffigan, conductor / Denis Matsuev, piano, plays Rachmaninoff Feb. 18 - 20, 2010
© Lera Auerbach
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Sergei Rachmaninoff
(1 April 1873 [O.S. 20 March]— 28 March 1943)

When one thinks of Rachmaninoff, usually what comes to mind is his face, serious and stern, clean-shaven, with a short modern haircut. His expression is distant and cold. He looks like a British gentleman, not easily approachable, always well dressed, with a posture of self-confidence if not arrogance. Then one may remember the endless tales of Rachmaninoff's depression, his legendary gloom, the trademark-able depth of his Russian soul. Yet to me Rachmaninoff's name has always been linked to joy.

Back in 1991, at the time of my immigration to America, alone and far from home for the first time, an ocean and an era away, I decided to compile a cassette-tape, which included music that would give me hope. At the first sign of despair, I would play this tape. Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto (I believe it was Ashkenazy's recording) occupied the first half; the second half was shared by Bach, Mozart, and Stravinsky. This antidote to depression must have worked, as I managed to survive my late teens, accompanied by the opening bells of Rachmaninoff's concerto and Bach's "Ich habe genug".

The Second Piano Concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff is one of the most frequently performed works in the world. The generosity of its writing is overwhelming and it is a pure joy to play. I was so excited to perform it for the first time - I still remember the burning feeling of anticipation while standing backstage and waiting for the stage call.

His piano writing is truly idiomatic — the texture lends itself to the pianist's hands — rich, sonorous, passionate. This music is so generous that the most common performance problem is over-involvement or over-interpretation, which may result in sweetening the richly cooked meal and thus spoiling it.

Rachmaninoff was a modern Western man who traveled the world and even lived for several years in Dresden, long before his decision to leave Russia permanently in the turbulent year of 1917. We tend to forget this, but Rachmaninoff was an American composer, an American citizen, who always loved his cultural Russian heritage but was able to embrace his adopted country fully. He lived for 26 years in the United States in New York and in Los Angeles and died in Beverly Hills in 1943. He was known to have a great sense of humor in private circles and was a connoisseur of good food and wine.

Sergei Rachmaninoff never trusted the Soviet government, which repeatedly tried to entice back famous Russian artists who lived abroad, such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff. Only Prokofiev chose to return to the Soviet Union, which was the gravest mistake of his life. But that is another story for another time.

In the U.S., Rachmaninoff's main occupation was as a concert pianist. His piano recitals were legendary. He was adored by the public and critics alike. However, as a composer, he was unfavorably reviewed by the music critics. He was a contemporary of Stravinsky, Debussy and Schoenberg. The pressure of the avant-garde was everywhere. Rachmaninoff, who early on developed his own musical language, (one can always recognize his music from listening to just a few seconds) found himself an outsider in the mainstream of Western musical development. He was deeply troubled by this, yet his attempts to conform would create only greater failures in his own eyes.

The Piano Concerto No.2 was composed between the fall of 1900 and April 1901. Rachmaninoff performed the 2nd and 3rd movements on Dec. 2, 1900. The complete work was first performed on October 27, 1901 with the composer as soloist and his cousin Alexander Siloti conducting. The concerto is dedicated to Nikolai Dahl, a physician who helped Rachmaninoff restore his confidence through hypnosis. Prior to this concerto, Rachmaninoff's First Symphony and his First Piano Concerto — both premiered in Russia — were complete fiascos, which resulted in his depression and loss of confidence. The Second Piano Concerto was Rachmaninoff's creative resurrection and affirmative "Yes!" to his ambition as a composer. Rachmaninoff was 28 years old when he composed it. He was in love and about to get married to Natalia Satina. This concerto was his first mature work.

Let's imagine him at that time. All the upcoming turmoil of his life — the Revolution, concert tours and American immigration are still far ahead. He is only 28, in love, and has just finished his most ambitious work. He smiles shyly and proudly closes his manuscript.