Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2

Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov’s recent recording is simply astounding.

Many years ago, on a visit to her cottage in the Sussex countryside, my French teacher played me a recording of Rachmaninoff performing his own second piano concerto. The music haunts. It is one of the most popular “romantic” piano concertos ever written, alongside Tchaikovsky’s first, Saint-Saens’s second, and Prokofiev’s third. Of course, there is also Rachmaninoff’s third, but that’s another story.

Parts of the concerto were famously used on the soundtrack of David Lean’s film Brief Encounter (1945) and in many later films. In 2005, it was named Britain’s most popular piece of classical music. As Robert Walker remarks in Rachmaninoff (1980):

“The score is full of superb touches, frequently overlooked by those who are carried away (or put off) by the top layer of its rich melodic substance.”

Rachmaninoff(2)The story of the composition of the second piano concerto is well known. By 1900, Rachmaninoff had become so self-critical that, despite numerous attempts, composing had become near impossible. His aunt then suggested professional help, having received successful treatment from a family friend, physician and amateur musician Nikolai Dahl, to which Rachmaninoff agreed. After four months of daily hypnotherapy and psychotherapy, structured to improve his sleep patterns, mood, and appetite, his desire to compose was rekindled.

Rachmaninoff recalled a Romance for cello and piano that used arpeggios and melancholic harmonic progressions written in 1890 for his cousin Vera Skalon. He began composing his second piano concerto from the slow movement outwards, following it with the exuberant third movement and only then turning to the first movement. The concerto was finished in April 1901 and dedicated to Dahl. The first and last movements had been played in December 1900 with Rachmaninoff as the soloist, and the entire piece was first performed in 1901 conducted by Rachmaninoff’s conservatory professor Alexander Siloti (a pianist, a pupil of Franz Liszt and a friend of Tchaikovsky).

In 2017, The Gramophone reviewed “The best recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2”. From a bulging catalogue, top of the list came Krystian Zimerman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa (2004). “A romantic to his fingertips, Zimerman inflects one familiar theme after another with a yearning, bittersweet intensity that he equates in his interview with first love. Every page is alive with a sense of wonder at Rachmaninov’s genius.”

Not far behind was Leif Ove Andsnes with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antonio Pappano (2012). “A Rolls-Royce reading with which only the pickiest could find fault. The last movement, though, is something special and the final appearance of its glorious second subject, greeted with a mighty timpani wallop and braying brass, is heart-stopping.”

Other much sought after recordings include Julius Katchen/Anatole Fistoulari (1951); Sviatoslav Richter/Stanislaw Wislocki (1959); Van Cliburn/Fritz Reiner (1962); Vladimir Ashkenazy/Kirill Kondrashin (1963); Earl Wild/Jascha Horenstein (1966); Philippe Entremont/Leonard Bernstein (1966); and Tamás Vásàry/Yuri Ahronovitch (1976).

And then there is Daniil Trifonov, a young Rachmaninoff of whom The New York Times wrote, “Few artists have burst onto the classical music scene in recent years with the incandescence of the pianist Daniil Trifonov”. The legendary pianist Martha Argerich commented, “He has everything and more … tenderness and also the demonic element. I never heard anything like that.”

Hyperbole? Not a whit. Listen to his recording (2018) of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto for brilliance, clarity, subtlety, myriad voices, and passion. The Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin complements the soloist to the full. Not all pianists indulge the orchestra in a way that makes for a genuine partnership. This recording is one of the exceptions: astounding in its passionate declamation, its moments of delicacy, and its roller-coaster bravura.

Rachmaninoff recorded his second piano concerto in 1924 and again in 1929 with The Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. It was the second of these that my French teacher played me. Trifonov comes full circle.

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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