Eight things you didn’t know about Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2, by Joe Hardy for LSO.co.uk on 26 October 2017:
“Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto was written after a very dark period in the composer’s life. The premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 was disastrous and the piece was poorly received. One critic wrote, ‘This music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization…’ Rachmaninoff walked out of the performance early and was crushed by the overwhelmingly negative response. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov told him, ‘Forgive me, but I do not find this music at all agreeable’.
After the disastrous First Symphony, Rachmaninoff sank into a deep depression and found himself unable to compose for three years, finding work as a pianist while he rebuilt his self-esteem. When he finally premiered his Second Piano Concerto in 1901, his career was saved, opening to great critical acclaim and reaffirming his status as a world-class composer.
Rachmaninoff dedicated the concerto to Dr Nicolai Dahl, a Russian neurologist and musician. After Rachmaninoff’s breakdown, Dr Dahl held daily sessions of hypnosis and positive suggestion therapy, enabling Rachmaninoff to rebuild himself and begin composing again.
In 1970, the LSO recorded the piece with principal conductor André Previn and piano legend Vladimir Ashkenazy. Ashkenazy is reported to have said that, in playing Rachmaninoff, he wished that his fingers were a little longer.
It’s notoriously difficult to play as the piece requires a large handspan, particularly in the first movement with its signature wide-spread piano chords. Rachmaninoff could span an extraordinary 12 piano keys with each hand. It has been speculated that Rachmaninoff had Marfan’s syndrome, a disorder of the body’s connective tissues which allowed him to spread his fingers so wide and to compose and play such challenging pieces.
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 opens with a series of chords, reminiscent of church bells. The motif of bells features in many of Rachmaninoff’s compositions, and is said to have been inspired by the Russian Orthodox services he attended with his grandmother as a boy.
The concerto is a popular choice on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Castaways who have chosen the piece include eminent conductors John Barry and John Rutter and stars outside the classical world like Lauren Bacall and Gracie Fields.
The concerto has made numerous appearances in big blockbuster films. You might remember hearing the piece in David Lean’s Brief Encounter, screenplay by Noel Coward, (1945), The Seven Year Itch starring Marilyn Monroe (1955) and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (2010).
It has also been reborn in pop music of the 20th century. The piece was repurposed by Frank Sinatra for his 1945 song Full Moon and Empty Arms and by Eric Carmen in his 1975 power ballad All By Myself, resulting in another famous cinematic outing for the concerto.”