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In his day, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was revered as one of the supreme pianists. But music critics dismissed his compositions as trite, as if little more could be expected of a mere performer. Such disdain is hard to defend with any sense of history, past or present. Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt, the great pianists of the prior generation — and Mozart and Beethoven before them — all captivated critics and attained lasting fame through sensational concerts of their own acclaimed compositions. Nowadays we celebrate our jazz, folk, and rock icons, whether Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, or the Beatles, not just for their distinctive recordings but for the music they wrote. Rachmaninoff’s problem was one of timing — he was brazenly, traditionally romantic in an era of rapid aesthetic change and intellectual exploration. Today, when audiences seek respite from the expressive void of most serious modern music, they embrace such works as his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. The fact that Rachmaninoff was born a generation too late hardly seems to matter anymore. But in his own time, it surely did. THE INEVITABLE ENCORE For someone seemingly so old-fashioned, Rachmaninoff had a highly unconventional career. After receiving the highest marks ever awarded by the Moscow Conservatory and training with Nikolai Sverov, a strict disciplinarian who essentially closeted his piano students in his home for five years of rigorous study, Rachmaninoff soared to fame at age 19 with his Prelude in C Sharp Minor. A haunting four-minute slice of chromatic yearning, the prelude soon became Rachmaninoff’s inevitable encore — audiences would sit through an entire recital just to hear the piece. He later came to regret how this novice work often eclipsed his mature and more substantial output, but at the time the prelude proved a welcome professional jump-start. Rachmaninoff focused on conducting, composing, and performing his own work for the next 25 years — until the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought a suspension of public concerts, threatened to erode the values he cherished, and threw his future in doubt. He emigrated to the United States, where he was welcomed with offers from managers, piano manufacturers, record companies, and orchestras. To support his family, he chose to focus on giving recitals, but first he had to expand his repertoire. Most great pianists begin playing the established classics as child prodigies so that their ripest years reflect decades of study, familiarity, and refinement. Rachmaninoff was in his mid-40s before he turned to the work of others. Bringing to his performances the mind of a composer, Rachmaninoff insisted on deconstructing each work to gain a profound understanding of its essence. Colleagues recall that he would learn a new piece by playing it up to 20 times slower than written and sounding each chord repeatedly up and down the keyboard. He felt that each piece had a “point,” a mystical culmination (not necessarily the formal climax) upon which all its elements converged and toward which each sound carefully but naturally was calculated to lead. When he believed that he had missed the “point” in one of his renditions, Rachmaninoff would sink into a deep, inconsolable depression. Fortunately, Rachmaninoff’s piano artistry is preserved in recordings, even though most are of the lightweight encores that artists in those days were pushed to record in lieu of more substantial fare. Among his most extraordinary recordings is a radical view of the third movement of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2, Op. 35. After the well-known somber death march and a central section of surpassing tenderness, Chopin’s score specifies that the march return pianissimo (very softly). Rachmaninoff, though, plunged back into the funeral march with shattering volume and then slowly descended to the end. His bold gesture shifts the perspective away from a gentle death, lulled by human beauty, toward a grim vision of indomitable fate, utterly unmoved by hope or prayer. He drove home this vision in the brief final movement. It is written as a dense fabric of breathless onrushing triplets, but Rachmaninoff constantly pulled out threads of turbulent emotional upheaval to craft an unsettling image of the confused human condition. His astonishing subliminal insight serves to revitalize a familiar warhorse. COMPOSED WITH FEELING Although recordings undoubtedly have an impact, multitalented artists of the past tend to be remembered for their compositions, while memories of their ephemeral performances fade. Thus, despite his splendor and reputation as a pianist and, ironically, despite the views of his critics, it is as a composer that Rachmaninoff is now best known. Rachmaninoff believed that the mission of music is to give tonal expression to feelings. He faulted modern music as coming from the head, not the heart — a view shared by audiences, who enthusiastically embraced his refusal to abandon 19th century traditions. And yet, although his output was widely disparaged by the progressive establishment, even a composer as modern as Arnold Schoenberg, who led the early 20th century escape from traditional tonality, said, “There is still plenty of music to be written in C major.” Composer Charles Koechlin agreed: “One of the worst sicknesses of our time is the desire to be modern. What is necessary is to follow through an idea . . . free from any fear of resembling [the past].” Rachmaninoff’s first piano concerto, written when he was 17, was performed once and never published. (The version we hear today was thoroughly reworked 25 years later.) His next major work, the 1895 Symphony No. 1, was an abject failure. Rachmaninoff was devastated: “My dreams of a brilliant career lay shattered. My hopes and confidence were destroyed. . . . I felt like a man who had suffered a stroke and for a long time had lost the use of his head and hands.” Only after several years of apathy did Nikolas Dahl, a local hypnotherapist and musical enthusiast, manage to restore Rachmaninoff’s confidence. As Rachmaninoff’s creative juices began to flow again, he wrote the second and third movements of a new piano concerto in the summer and autumn of 1900. Bolstered by their successful premiere that December, he completed the work in 1901. Rachmaninoff had emerged from his doldrums with a gorgeous, vibrant work that spoke with a distinctive personality (and that he dedicated to Dahl). PIANO SUPREME The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor is the epitome of Rachmaninoff’s musical ideals and would become his most popular work. Written in the minor keys, which he consistently favored, it is his only major work that does not quote “Dies Irae,” the medieval lament for the dead, with which he had a lifelong obsession. The opening announces its character with striking efficiency. Deep, resonant piano chords evoke both the Russian church bells of Rachmaninoff’s roots and his own complex personality: The outer notes remain steadfast while the inner notes subtly change the harmony, as if to suggest the surging emotion underneath the composer’s somber appearance. As the opening chords would sound thoroughly ineffective if played on any other instrument, they serve to announce the piano’s essential role in the piece. That supremacy is confirmed as the soloist continues with a blizzard of notes that thicken the texture of the ensuing luxuriant string melody. Indeed, the pianist rarely falls silent or cedes the spotlight to the orchestra. Of all our recordings of the Piano Concerto No. 2, by far the most important is Rachmaninoff’s own, cut with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in April 1929. Rachmaninoff’s superlative solo work suggests a heady spontaneity, his elastic phrasing and rhythmic freedom evoking an inspired improvisation, made all the more wondrous by his close interplay with the orchestra. Rachmaninoff’s version leaves the piece wide open for others to interpret, without limiting authenticity to a single approach. The composer’s playing is far too personal for others to emulate directly, yet its inventiveness encourages successors to apply their own emotional insight. Many did. Of the dozens of recordings that followed, my personal favorite is by Julius Katchen, with Georg Solti conducting the London Symphony (1958, Philips). By constantly varying the rhythm of the opening chords, Katchen announces a bumpy but thrilling ride. In keeping with its iconoclastic introduction, this version relentlessly surges and throbs with the vitality of discovery and exploration, as breakaway moments with biting brass accents and wild tempos meld into exquisitely sensitive solo passages of breathtaking intimacy. While some may view this romp as quirky and self-indulgent, I find it heartfelt and exhilarating. Katchen and Solti reinvented the work to make it their own — just as its composer-pianist had done with the work of others. Rachmaninoff surely would have approved.
Peter Gutmann is a partner in the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. For more information about recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, go to his Web site.

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