I have had a request for a recording for Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, often described as the greatest piano concerto ever written. The request came from Ben Wheeler who tunes our piano. I love to make sure I am around when he comes because not only is his musical enthusiasm infectious, but he is rather a good pianist and once the piano is all beautifully tuned you get a recital. He plays more by ear than sight so all these wonderful improvisations waft through the house. Ben is also a dedicated piano specialist and knows everything there is to know about pianos, so if you would like to buy/sell/upgrade your piano he is your man. Ben Wheeler Pianos.
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was one of the greatest pianists of his day. He was born into an old Russian aristocratic family who had the attitude but not the money. His father, an amateur pianist was a waster and a gambler who lost everything. The composer's student years were phenomenal and he consistently amazed his teachers with his ability as both a pianist and a composer. Unfortunately all his life he was prone to anxiety and depression which was often reflected in his expression and he could appear cold and aloof. Stravinsky once described him as "a six-and-a-half foot tall scowl". He left Russia for good in 1917 after the Russian Revolution and first went to Helsinki and then resided in the US where he died of melanoma on 28th March 1943. In 1931 his music was banned in the USSR as "decadent" with the chilling warning "This music [The Bells] is by a violent enemy of Soviet Russia: Rachmaninov".
Rachmaninov said of himself "I am a Russian composer and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook". He wrote his first piano concerto when he was 19 years old. It was originally criticised for being too derivative and borrowing from the likes of Grieg and Tchaikovsky. The concerto is full of fiery keyboard passages, heart wrenching tunes and sumptuous orchestra accompaniments all of which were to come to the fore some ten years later with his second and most famous piano concerto.
The premiere of his Symphony No 1 under the baton of Alexander Glazunov was a disaster, largely because the conductor was drunk at the time. Nonetheless the result was Rachmaninov's career and confidence seemed to fizzle out, he went into a deep depression and suffered severe writers block. Various friends aided him back to health and the result was Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor which marked his complete recovery. Glorious melody after glorious melody flows from the keyboard. The music is both virtuosic and lyrical with the piano and orchestra taking in turns to caress the heavy Russian melody. Rachmaninov was the soloist at the first performance and he went on to play it all round the world.
There are many many great recordings of this work, but the one I recommend is by the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes conducted by Antonio Pappano. There are various reasons for this which are that first, this is considered to be one of the best recordings of these works, second, I think that Leif Ove is one of the great pianists of today, third, I like the fact that both piano concertos are coupled together and fourth, perhaps the most important reason is that Piano Concerto No 2 is recorded live. When a recording is live, the pianist, conductor and orchestra know that they have only got one maybe two goes at it (depending on how many concerts there are) this gives an edge to it and a tension that this huge work requires.
Listen to Rachmaninov playing Piano Concerto No 2 on YouTube, you can hear the power and weight that he puts into the opening chords. Recorded in 1929. Youtube