Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, op. 18

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            Those who create art, whether in the performing arts or in the visual arts, inevitably find their personal “niche” in matters of style.  And it is of little consequence whether or not their artistic orientation is a conscious personal choice, or one seemingly imposed by their audiences and by professional critics.   Simply put, there are artists whose voice naturally is to work within tradition and commonly-understood artistic language; they strive to develop that tradition to new levels of meaning through their own talent and personal vision.   Others make a total commitment to artistic truth arrived at through new voices, new styles, new languages.   Every museum and gallery of art, and every concert hall is testimony to this essential dichotomy.   And it must be admitted, that there a universal prejudice among intellectuals—especially those who subconsciously view the arts as they do technology—that the new is necessary the good.   The latest styles are more sophisticated, hence more relevant, and old styles should be left with the dead artists that created them.  This popular view was dominant among the cognoscenti during most of the twentieth century, but is beginning to moderate, as a more liberal acceptance of diverse artistic styles now is more common than previously—in all the arts.

            Like J. S. Bach, who upon his death was looked upon as a more or less old fuddy-duddy (now we know better, of course), Rachmaninoff has borne his share of criticism for having composed in a hopelessly old-fashioned style, long after its relevance.  His compositions are the last major representatives of vivid Russian Romanticism—long after that style was presumed dead and buried.  Yet, like Bach, his musical genius, his talent, and his strong belief in the validity of his art all led him to create a legacy that took “old-fashioned-style” to a natural and valid high point of achievement.  While a child of the nineteenth century, he died almost at the midpoint of the twentieth, secure in his success, and secure in the world’s enduring appreciation of his “dated” style.

            Rachmaninoff wrote four piano concertos, the first was a student composition (later revised) from 1896 and the last was composed in 1926 (revised in 1941).   The second is by far the most popular, and was finished in 1901, when the composer was twenty-eight years old, and had just undergone a devastating series of professional setbacks that cast him into deep depression.   It contains all of the essential characteristics of Rachmaninoff’s style that have established his lasting place in audiences’ esteem everywhere.  An unparalleled melodic sweep, the lyricism of which seems to unfold in growing cascades of sound, is coupled with masterful orchestration of rich, lush textures.  The composer was a virtuoso pianist and his writing for the solo piano emanates from a mastery of the almost limitless figurations possible for the instrument.  Although Rachmaninoff left Russian after the Revolution, never to return, and lived in a variety of places—at his death in 1943, he was living in Beverly Hills—he lived as a Russian all of his life.  That is, he and his wife maintained a home with Russian servants, spoke Russian there, and lived with Russian customs.  

            That ethnicity speaks eloquently in almost every bar of his music, and anyone can sense that from the first ominous chords that build the tension before the entrance of the main theme in the second concerto.  The darkness of the mood is enhanced by the simple choice of register for that theme, for it is scored for unison low strings and clarinet, right at the bottom of the violins’ range.  The winsome second theme, in a happier mode, is pure Rachmaninoff.   The middle of the movement is suitably restless, in a varied tapestry of themes, keys, and textures, leading to a climax, where we expect the usual review of the opening.  But, the composer, ever creative, turns things upside down, and we hear quite a different closing section than is usual.  New ideas and relationships add considerably to the charm of the movement, as it builds to the inevitable climax at the end.

            The slow movement finds the piano ruminating with figurations that leads one to ask:  “Where is the theme?”  The flute provides the answer, in a delicate solo that leads to a series of exchanges between the solo piano and other instruments in a languorous atmosphere that is now thought of as a trademark of the composer.  Even if you don’t have perfect pitch, there is an indefinable satisfaction gotten from the unexpected choice of key for this movement, a rather unusual relationship between E major and C minor.

            The last movement, of course, is the one with the melody made so famous during the 1940s in a maudlin pop arrangement.  For all of that, this concerto to the present continues to be the source of musical elements ripped from it and used in unexpected contexts.  In any case, after a few gestures in the lower instruments, the soloist kicks the movement off with a grand cadenza which teases us as to where the movement could possibly go. The answer is a dynamic march of a theme, snapping along.   The “big, lyrical theme” is the contrast, introduced by the warm, rich viola section.  Exciting give and take between the two ideas propels the movement along, until the “big, lyrical theme” wins the day, and soars rhapsodically to the majestic ending that only a grouch would denigrate.  The years in Rachmaninoff’s life immediately before the composition of this work may have been low ones for the young man, but this concerto is apt testimony to the palliative effects of a good therapist and marrying your sweetheart.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan