Sergei Rachmaninov

Piano Concerto No. 2

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 35–40 Minutes
Genre: Solo Concerto
Time of Creation: 1900–1901
World Premiere: October 27, 1901 (Moscow)

Table of Contents

Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 in 5 Sentences

Sergei Rachmaninov composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 after a serious creative crisis: his 1st Symphony had premiered in October 1897, but had been rejected by the public and the critics. Plagued by depression, Rachmaninov sought out a doctor, the neurologist Nikolai Dahl, who treated him with hypnosis. The therapy proved effective, enabling Rachmaninov to write and premiere his Piano Concerto No. 2. The work was received with enthusiasm and is still one of the most popular piano concertos ever.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2

Highlight 1: Solo Introduction

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 begins in a special way: the orchestra is silent, and the piano begins all alone with eight chords. The effect is reminiscent of church bells. Remarkably, the chords are very wide-ranging, so you need big hands to play all the notes at once. Rachmaninov had large hands; however, he himself did not always play the introductory chords together, but divided them:

Highlight 2: Melancholy first theme

This is followed by the melancholy first theme in the orchestra, which is virtuously played around by the piano:

Highlight 3: Dialogue in the second movement

In the second movement, the piano plays fanning figures, which turn out to be accompaniment as the movement progresses: First the flute joins in, then the clarinet takes over. This beginning of the second movement is a wonderful dialogue-like moment, reminiscent of chamber music:

Highlight 4: Virtuoso ending

The third movement fulfills exactly what one would expect from a piano virtuoso like Sergei Rachmaninov. The piano part becomes more and more virtuosic until the work finally ends with a climax:

3 Questions and Answers about Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2

Question 1: To whom did Rachmaninov dedicate his 2nd Piano Concerto?

Rachmaninov dedicated his 2nd Piano Concerto to the neurologist Nikolai Dahl, who had brought Rachmaninov out of a deep creative crisis with a hypnosis treatment.

Question 2: Who premiered Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2?

The first performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was given by Sergei Rachmaninov himself on the piano and the conductor Alexander Siloti.

Question 3: Is Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 used in other contexts?

Yes. The work was often (and very early!) used as film music, for example in “Brief Encounter” by David Lean in 1945 and in “Rhapsody” with Elizabeth Taylor in 1954.

2 Recommended Recordings of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2

Recording 1: Denis Kozhukhin, hr-Sinfonieorchester, Marin Alsop (live, 2014)

Pianist Denis Kozhukhin does one thing particularly well in this performance: balance tempo and clarity. In Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, it’s very “easy” to sacrifice clarity of articulation for a (too) fast tempo. Kozhukhin does not do that – every note remains clearly articulated.

Recording 2: Anna Fedorova, Northwest German Philharmonic Orchestra, Martin Panteleev

This performance with Anna Fedorova at the piano took place in the famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam:

1 Quote about Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2

I heard the same hypnotic formulas repeated day after day as I lay sleeping in Dahl's treatment room. 'You will write your concerto... you will work with great ease... The concerto will be of excellent quality...' It was always the same words, without interruption. Even if it seems unbelievable, this therapy really helped me. In the summer I began to compose. The material grew and new musical ideas began to stir in me.

Rachmaninov about his hypnosis treatment with Nikolai Dahl

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