Entertainment Music Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto is a perfect work of...

Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto is a perfect work of art


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Over the past 28 years, the Classic FM Hall of Fame has provided a reasonably robust indication of our classical music tastes. Looking at the statistics, we can tell that cinematic music has become ever more popular (John Williams is the number one contemporary composer), while Baroque music – although still featured heavily in the top 100 – has slipped down the rankings, with the highest entry for Mozart – the Clarinet Concerto – coming in at number 14.

But some things remain a reassuring constant, and it is no surprise that Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto has taken the top slot again – for the second time in a row, and the 10th in the poll’s history. No surprise because the 2nd is one of those pieces – like Spring from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations which has seeped into our consciousness.

I love the 2nd Piano Concerto, but that is an unfashionable view. Too sentimental, too romantic, too hackneyed say those who would prescribe you an evening with Arnold Schoenberg. Indeed much of the composer’s work was seen as a hindrance to the progressive tendencies of musicians in the 1950s, despite the fact that his music demonstrated its own, less po-faced expression of modernity. Some pianists hate it, too. “The piano repertoire is vast and there is no time to waste on Rachmaninov,” said the great Alfred Brendel. I doubt Brendel was daunted by the technical challenges the 2nd presents, but it is notorious – both in the physical dexterity required with those huge hand leaps and in its emotional complexity – something that a young pianist with little life experience might struggle with.

Of course, when we talk about Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto we are really only thinking about the 2nd movement – that emotional rollercoaster (or should that be runaway train?) – used so beautifully in David Lean’s Brief Encounter to unbutton the repressed feelings of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson on a suburban train platform. It was also appropriated by Eric Carmen (who died last month) for the 1970s tearjerker, All By Myself, an anthem for singlehood and the go-to track for Bridget Jones when she is home alone with a bottle of Chardonnay.

But the musically curious should look beyond the 2nd movement – the way in which the 1st movement builds from a pious solemnity to one of foreboding, for example and then the 3rd where everything seems to be spiralling out of control until it reaches a thrilling, thunderous, triumphant conclusion.

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The Telegraph’s classical music critic Ivan Hewett summed up Rachmaninov’s gifts neatly: “He goes straight for the emotional jugular, through a melodic gift which is second to none, a tumultuous pianistic virtuosity and a darkly rich harmonic palette,” he wrote when defending the composer against the naysayers ahead of a series of concerts at the Proms last summer.

And nowhere are these words more true than in the 2nd Piano Concerto, a consummation of Rachmaninov’s talents, and a consistent presence in our cultural lives.


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