Movement 1: Moderato
Movement 2: Adagio sostenuto
Movement 3: Allegro scherzando
Creatively there were more setbacks than triumphs. Rachmaninov’s dissatisfaction with what he had achieved in his First Concerto was as nothing compared to the trauma that ensued from the 1897 premiere of his First Symphony, distorted as it was under the baton of a reportedly less than entirely sober Glazunov. This was compounded by the more or less routine self-doubts of the young professional musician and by the ongoing tendency to existential listlessness, worthy of a character from Rachmaninov’s much-admired Chekhov. Two visits to the elderly Lev Tolstoy, designed to inspire the young composer, had more or less the reverse effect. At the first the revered author offered merely banal imprecations to daily toil (Tolstoy was by this stage well into his own self-despising phase; he had gone native and was tilling the soil on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana). At the second visit, in the company of Chaliapin and Goldenweiser, Rachmaninov had to endure Tolstoy’s withering response to his music, which was to echo down into the days of Soviet Socialist Realism: ‘Who needs it?’. After his London debut at the Queen’s Hall on 7 April 1899, Rachmaninov was invited to play his First Concerto the following year. Instead, however, he promised to compose ‘a second and better one’. But with his spirits at a low ebb, that was easier said than done.
Famously it was a visit to a friend of a friend (and a near neighbour) of his aunt and cousins that changed everything. Dr Nikolay Dahl was a music-loving doctor who had taken an interest in therapeutic hypnosis – all the rage at the time in France. Psychological malaise being endemic in Russian society, Dahl found plenty of scope for practice, and his results were reputedly impressive. Probably the successful therapy in Rachmaninov’s case had as much to do with conversation with a cultured man who turned to music for consolation as with actual hypnotherapy. At any rate the Second Concerto was released from the composer’s blocked psyche. In gratitude he dedicated the concerto to Dahl (who as an amateur violist would sometimes even play in the piece, garnering applause when his identity was disclosed).
That at least is the official version of events, deriving from Rachmaninov’s own autobiographical notes. However, one family report runs rather differently. According to the composer’s grandson, Alexander, who claims to have been told the story by his grandmother and sworn to secrecy until fifty years after her death, the true reason for Rachmaninov’s visit to Dahl was to court the doctor’s daughter, who was the secret inspiration behind the Second Concerto and who remained a shadowy presence during the composer’s subsequent married life. Alexander told this story to Stephen Hough in person; as yet there is no independent verification, and Rachmaninov scholars regard it with scepticism.
Whatever the true background, Rachmaninov’s creative inertia was overcome, and during the summer of 1900, spent largely with Chaliapin in Milan, he put his ideas for the new Concerto in order. He composed the second and third movements back in Russia and performed them on their own on 2 December in Moscow’s Nobility Hall, with Ziloti conducting. The two cousins would collaborate eleven months later on the first complete performance of the Concerto at the Moscow Philharmonic Society. It was not until May 1902 that London heard the work promised them three years earlier, and a further six months went by before the composer himself played it there (early British performances were given with Ziloti and Basil Sapelnikoff as soloists).
Anyone not knowing that the first movement was composed last might reasonably assume that its famous solo piano opening was the seed-idea for the whole work. This dark-hued progression, with its steady chromatic ascent and bell-like reinforcements in the bass, reappears in various disguises at nodal points in the work: as the closing harmonic progression of the first movement, at the beginning of the second, and, most obviously, just before the first main theme of the finale (after the piano’s opening flourishes). As in the First Concerto, the first movement exposition follows a Griegian pattern, the two main ideas, both of them now gorgeously lyrical, being spaced by brilliant figuration. The central phase, as before largely built on sequences, manages to sound freshly invented while adhering rigorously to existing material. There is no cadenza. Instead the structure unfolds as an unbroken, perfectly proportioned symphonic whole – no question of revision being needed this time. The interweaving of soloist and orchestra is a constant marvel, as is the scoring itself.
As the Concerto’s popularity grew, so its themes were treated to numerous song settings and arrangements, including the slow movement as Prayer for Violin and Piano by Fritz Kreisler ‘in collaboration with the composer’. The basic arpeggio figuration here comes from Rachmaninov’s early Romance for six hands at the piano, composed just after the original version of the First Concerto. The design echoes the slow-fast-slow pattern made famous by Tchaikovsky in his B flat Concerto, though in Rachmaninov’s case the faster music emerges gradually, as if under pressure from the internal force of its lyrical motifs.
Just as the slow movement raised the curtain with a magical modulation to E major from the first movement’s C minor conclusion, so the finale returns to C minor by stealth from the end of the slow movement. Once under way, the finale unfolds another drama of emotional turmoil, longing, regret and tussles with Fate, all the while blending the rhapsody and virtuosity of the Lisztian concerto tradition with the rock-solid craftsmanly values Rachmaninov learned from Taneyev.
Another unverified story behind the Second Concerto has it that Nikita Morozov (a fellow graduate from Arensky’s composition class in 1892, and the same Morozov who criticized the structure of the first movement and nearly plunged Rachmaninov back into creative self-loathing) actually composed the finale’s beautiful second melody and, on hearing of his friend’s admiration for it, allowed him to borrow it. In 1946, three years after Rachmaninov’s death, this would become the hit tune ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’. And among films that featured extracts from the Second Concerto were Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) and David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1946), the latter brilliantly matching the music to a scenario of emotional triumph longed-for but probably only achievable in fantasy (a scenario perhaps closer to the origins of the piece than previously imagined, if the story told by the composer’s grandson has any basis in reality).
from notes by David Fanning © 2004