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Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum and cymbals), strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 8, 1927, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting, with pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch
It is hard to believe that music as confidently athletic and effusively lyrical as Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto could be the product of low self-esteem and writer’s block. But following the excoriation his Symphony No. 1 received after its 1897 premiere (in a terrible performance led by a reportedly drunk Alexander Glazunov), Rachmaninoff became increasingly depressed about composing. Promises of concertos for his friend Alexander Goldenweiser in 1898 and for the London Philharmonic Society the following season went unfulfilled.
After many fruitless attempts to pull himself out of this deepening despondency – including visits to an unsympathetic and pontificating Leo Tolstoy – Rachmaninoff began daily sessions with a Dr. Nikolai Dahl in January of 1900. Dahl was an internist and hypnotist – and not at all incidentally a fine amateur musician – who had treated one of Rachmaninoff’s aunts. Dahl’s therapy, a combination of sensitive, understanding discussion and hypnotic suggestion, proved successful again. In April Rachmaninoff took off to the Mediterranean with his friend and recital partner, the bass Fyodor Chaliapin. A few months later Rachmaninoff returned to Russia with a portfolio of newly composed music, including a duet for his opera Francesca da Rimini and sketches for his Second Piano Concerto. He finished the second and third movements of the Concerto in time to play them on a benefit concert in December; the full work – dedicated to Dahl – was completed the following summer and premiered in November 1901.
The Concerto was ecstatically received at that premiere, and has been a staple of heroic pianists ever since. Like many of the composer’s other popular scores, it has been pillaged for both style and content by film composers and songwriters – the luxuriant, exotically colored second theme in the finale provided the tune for “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” a hit for the young Frank Sinatra.
Other aspects of the score include imaginative treatments of the piano-orchestra relationship in texture and color as well as the highly evolved, thematic give-and-take. The great outpourings of melody are balanced by brutal dances and a sardonic subtext. In this fabulous showpiece, musicianship always motivates the virtuosity – an interpretive virtuosity as much as a mechanical virtuosity, one that intensifies musical developments rather than replacing them.
— John Henken