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In concert-going circles it’s always the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto even though he wrote three of them, just as in piano recital circles it is the Rachmaninoff Sonata even though he wrote two. Vladimir Horowitz championed the Second Sonata for much of his career and with such advocacy it is no wonder that the work achieved its enormous popularity. Tonight it is the unjustly neglected First Sonata we hear.

Seeking a calm environment in which to compose, Rachmaninoff left the politicized infighting of the Russian musical scene and moved his family to Dresden late in 1906. There, over the following months, he completed his immense Second Symphony and his First Piano Sonata.

In communications with his colleagues, Rachmaninoff suggested both that he had been inspired by the Faust legend (the movements being portraits of Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles), and that he considered expanding the sonata into a symphony. But the programmatic inclination eventually was abandoned, and while the music is certainly conceived with a sweeping orchestral palette in mind, the composer never undertook the transformation.

Gloriously, all the stylistic traits heard of Rachmaninoff’s most beloved music are found here. The sinister and mysterious opening gives way to soaring passages redolent of hymns and the tolling of the bells of Russian Orthodox churches – a fixture in Rachmaninoff’s compositions throughout his career.  The unexpectedly tranquil ending of the first movement leads to the gentle Lento second movement, which is, like the Adagio of the Second Symphony, a consoling and passionate song without words, a melody that remains aloft and unfurling throughout. The virtuoso’s imperatives come crashing back in the concluding Allegro molto. The mystery of the opening of the Sonata is revisited, but dark resounding chords triumph, martial and incendiary.

Grant Hiroshima, former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, is a frequent contributor to the program book.