In 1897, Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony had its premiere. The conductor was drunk, the orchestra sloppy, and the press vicious. Rachmaninoff promptly had a breakdown. The Suite No. 2 was one of the first works to emerge once he’d patched his shredded confidence back together enough to go on composing. The success of a performance of two movements from his Second Piano Concerto in December 1900 also helped immensely.
The Suite 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 duo pianos so that they sound like one entity. 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 Romance overflows with lyricism and fantasy. Most of the movement is introspective, but the impassioned central climax revisits the romanticism of the waltz’s middle section. Rachmaninoff closes the Suite with a tarantella, an Italian dance whose abandoned flailings were once thought to cure the bite of a tarantula. Here, again, we find Rachmaninoff at his best, crafting a finale that demands staggering virtuosity from both players.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Rachmaninoff himself, 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 broken creator.
John Mangum is a Ph.D candidate in history at UCLA. He has also written for Los Angeles Opera, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
Length: 22 minutes