Probably two of the best recordings of what many say is the greatest piano concerto ever written. With heart and strength and flawless interpretation, Richter’s rendition is quintessential. If you are listening to this concerto for the first or last time, this performance is for you. Zimerman’s recording is nearly as indispensible, with unique style choices and tempo fluctuations. What sets this recording apart from others is its perfect sound quality (typical of Zimerman). Every note, piano or orchestra, is crystal clear, accentuating Zimerman’s remarkable attention to detail.
Sergei Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18 – S. Richter, piano with sheet music – S. Richter & K. Zimerman, piano
S. Richter, piano
The Boston Symphony Orchestra – Seiji Ozawa, conductor
The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor
The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, is a concerto for piano and orchestra composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff between the autumn of 1900 and April 1901. The second and third movements were first performed with the composer as soloist on 2 December 1900. The complete work was premiered, again with the composer as soloist, on 9 November 1901, with his cousin Alexander Siloti conducting.
This piece is one of Rachmaninoff’s most enduringly popular pieces, and established his fame as a concerto composer.
At its 1897 premiere, Rachmaninoff’s first symphony, though now considered a significant achievement, was derided by contemporary critics. Compounded by problems in his personal life, Rachmaninoff fell into a depression that lasted for several years. His second piano concerto confirmed his recovery from clinical depression and writer’s block, cured by courses of hypnotherapy and psychotherapy and helped by support from his family and friends. The concerto was dedicated to Nikolai Dahl, the physician who had done much to restore Rachmaninoff’s self-confidence.
The work is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B♭ (I mov.) and A (II & III mov.), 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in B♭, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, solo piano, and strings. It is written in three-movement concerto form:
- Moderato (C minor)
- Adagio sostenuto – Più animato – Tempo I (C minor → E major)
- Allegro scherzando (E major → C minor → C major)
The opening movement begins with a series of chromatic bell-like tollings on the piano that build tension, eventually climaxing in the introduction of the main theme by the violins, violas, and first clarinet.
In this first section, while the melody is stated by the orchestra, the piano takes on the role of accompaniment, consisting of rapid oscillating arpeggios between both hands which contribute to the fullness and texture of the section’s sound. The theme soon goes into a slightly lower register, where it is carried on by the cello section, and then is joined by the violins and violas, soaring to a climactic C note. After the statement of the long first theme, a quick and virtuosic “piu mosso” pianistic figuration transition leads into a short series of authentic cadences, accompanied by both a crescendo and an accelerando; this then progresses into the gentle, lyrical second theme in E♭ major, the relative key.
The second theme is first stated by the solo piano, with light accompaniment coming from the upper wind instruments. A transition which follows the chromatic scale eventually leads to the final reinstatement of the second theme, this time with the full orchestra at a piano dynamic. The exposition ends with an agitated closing section with scaling arpeggios on the E♭ major scale in both hands.
The agitated and unstable development borrows motives from both themes, changing keys very often and giving the melody to different instruments while a new musical idea is slowly formed. The sound here, while focused on a particular tonality, has ideas of chromaticism. Two sequences of pianistic figurations lead to a placid, orchestral reinstatement of the first theme in the dominant 7th key of G. The development furthers with motifs from the previous themes, climaxing towards a B♭ major “più vivo” section.
A triplet arpeggio section leads into the accelerando section, with the accompanying piano playing chords in both hands, and the string section providing the melody reminiscent of the second theme. The piece reaches a climax with the piano playing dissonant fortississimo (fff) chords, and with the horns and trumpets providing the syncopated melody.
While the orchestra restates the first theme, the piano, that on the other occasion had an accompaniment role, now plays the march-like theme that had been halfly presented in the development, thus making a considerable readjustment in the exposition, as the main theme, the arpeggios in the piano serve as an accompaniment. This is followed by a piano-solo which continues the first theme and leads into a descending chromatic passage to a pianississimo A♭ major chord. Then the second theme is heard played with a horn solo.
The entrance of the piano reverts the key back into C minor, with triplet passages played over a mysterious theme played by the orchestra. Briefly, the piece transitions to a C major glissando in the piano, and is placid until drawn into the agitated closing section in which the movement ends in a C minor fortissimo, with the same authentic cadence as those that followed the first statement of the first theme in the exposition.
Adagio sostenuto – Più animato – Tempo I
The second movement opens with a series of slow chords in the strings which modulate from the C minor of the previous movement to the E major of this movement.
At the beginning of the A section, the piano enters, playing a simple arpeggiated figure. This opening piano figure was composed in 1891 as the opening of the Romance from Two Pieces For Six Hands. The main theme is initially introduced by the flute, before being developed by an extensive clarinet solo. The motif is passed between the piano and then the strings.
Then the B section is heard. It builds up to a short climax centred on the piano, which leads to cadenza for piano.
The original theme is repeated, and the music appears to die away, finishing with just the soloist in E major.
The last movement opens with a short orchestral introduction that modulates from E major (the key of the previous movement) to C minor, before a piano solo leads to the statement of the agitated first theme.
After the original fast tempo and musical drama ends, a short transition from the piano solo leads to the second theme lyrical theme in B♭ major is introduced by the oboe and violas. This theme maintains the motif of the first movement’s second theme. The exposition ends with a suspenseful closing section in B♭ major.
After that an extended and energetic development section is heard. The development is based on the first theme of the exposition. It maintains a very improvisational quality, as instruments take turns playing the stormy motifs.
In the recapitulation, the first theme is truncated to only 8 bars on the tutti, because it was widely used in the development section. After the transition, the recapitulation’s 2nd theme appears, this time in D♭ major, half above the tonic. However, after the ominous closing section ends it then builds up into a triumphant climax in C major from the beginning of the coda. The movement ends very triumphantly in the tonic major with the same four-note rhythm ending the Third Concerto in D minor.
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