The Suite for Two Pianos, Op. 17, was one of Rachmaninoff's first works after the three-year near-silence that followed the devastating premiere of his First Symphony in 1897. The Symphony's failure could not be attributed to its music alone - according to Rachmaninoff's wife, the conductor was drunk, the orchestra sloppy, and the press vicious. The critic and composer César Cui's review likened the work to "a program symphony on the seven plagues of Egypt." Things didn't get any better, either. A couple of years after the symphony disaster, Rachmaninoff went to play his music for Leo Tolstoy, the colossus of Russian culture, whose only response was, "Tell me, does anybody need music like that?" Understandably depressed, Rachmaninoff went to see a hypnotherapist, who also happened to be an amateur musician, and his confidence in his abilities was gradually restored. The success of a December 1900 performance of two movements from his Second Piano Concerto - a work he dedicated to his therapist - also helped.
Rachmaninoff composed the suite during this period and completed it in April 1901. The work is assertive, bold, and confident right from the start. The robust opening march precedes a sparkling waltz, the first of the work's two dances. Here and throughout the Suite, Rachmaninoff integrates the parts for the two pianos so that they can hardly be distinguished. During the middle of the waltz, we get one of the composer's characteristic big tunes, a ripely romantic melody pounded out in chords over a flowing accompaniment.
The beautifully crafted third-movement Romance overflows with lyricism and fantasy. Most of the movement is introspective, but the impassioned central climax revisits the expressive world of the waltz's middle section. Rachmaninoff closes the suite with a tarantella, an Italian dance whose crazed flailings were once thought to cure the bite of a tarantula. Here, again, we find the composer at his best, crafting a finale that demands staggering virtuosity from both players.
Rachmaninoff, one of the 20th century's greatest pianists, and his cousin and teacher Alexander Siloti, also renowned for his skill at the keyboard, premiered the work on November 24, 1901, at a concert of the Moscow Philharmonic Society. It was a moment that, according to one writer, "always remained symbolic of the renewal of life" for its once-despondent creator.
- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Program Designer/Annotator.