In today’s video, we’re going to take a closer look at Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor. In classic.fm’s annual list of the top 300 classical pieces people love, this concerto was number 2 (in 2018). It’s very well-known and well-loved!
I like to do analysis-style videos on this channel, and we’ve done a bunch before:
What we’ll do in this video is talk about the three movements and any interesting technical or interpretive details, and listen through some examples of the stuff we’re talking about.
Let’s get started!
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 is one of his most famous compositions, performed in full for the first time in 1901 when he was about 28 years old. It was his comeback composition after a disastrous premiere of his first symphony which left him depressed for years.
However, extensive therapy sessions helped get Rachmaninoff out of his funk, and by the time this concerto premiered he was mostly recovered, finding his creative mojo again. He dedicated this concerto to his shrink, Nikolai Dahl.
This concerto has a very Russian feel, and has echoes of Rachmaninoff’s idol, Tchaikovsky.
What is a concerto?
We’ve talked about what a concerto is on this channel before – definitely check it out for more details if you haven’t already. The short of it is, a concerto is a multi-movement composition that generally features one instrument. They’re show-off compositions. Whatever instrument is spotlighted is usually played by a star performer.
In the case of a piano concerto, the piano part is very difficult, and it’s supported by a small orchestra for color and texture.
When Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 premiered, he was the soloist and his cousin Alexander Siloti was the conductor.
Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 2: Form
This concerto has three movements:
Adagio sostenuto/Piu animato
A full performance is about 40 minutes long. In order to keep this video a reasonable length, I’ll point out a few key things to listen to, but be sure to listen to the full version!
1st movement: Moderato in C minor
The piano opens with a famous and dramatic chordal pattern that resembles bells tolling. After that, the orchestra kicks in with the melody while the piano melts into the background with rapid arpeggios.
As is typical of concertos, the first movement is in sonata form (there’s a video on that), which is a very detailed long form. Boiled down to its essence, it has three parts:
The exposition is where the main musical themes are introduced. In the development, those themes are twisted around and manipulated. The recapitulation is a return to the exposition. It’s sort of like an embellished ABA form.
Let’s take a listen to the chordal introduction and opening theme of the exposition to get a feel for the flavor of this piece.
The first theme is quite extended and takes us through the first two and a half minutes of the piece. Then the second theme emerges in the piano, much brighter and more optimistic than the opening. It’s in the parallel major key of C minor, Eb major.
Let’s now jump into the second section of the first movement, the development section. After a big, dramatic build in the exposition, ending in the key of Eb major with the full orchestra, we come back to some tension and angst.
This section uses pieces from both the first and second theme, manipulating them. At the start of the development you’ll hear the first theme, this time with different harmonies to create an unsettled feeling.
After some twisting and turning, we build up to the climactic moment of the piece, with the piano literally climbing higher and higher in a series of dissonant chords while the full orchestra adds some bombast.
The recapitulation, or return, isn’t a direct copy of the beginning. Instead the piano is playing a march-like theme while the orchestra provides our continuity. That’s what you’ll hear in the example in a moment – which is followed by the second theme, and the closing bit which ends in a C minor fortissimo.
2nd movement: Adagio sostenuto/piu animato in C minor/E major
The second movement is very emotive and sentimental.
At the beginning of our second movement, adagio sostenuto (sustained and slow), the strings give us some C minor chords that help us transition to the new and unrelated key of E major for the remainder of this movement.
This movement, about 10 minutes long, is in simple ABA format.
Theme 1 flute
After the piano arpeggios, the flute solo joins as our theme – it’s a very slow and beautiful melody. This melody is later taken over by clarinets.
The B section concludes with a very virtuosic piano part, providing the climax of the movement. Since this is a pinnacle of the movement, I feel it’s worth having a quick listen to. This part is followed by a piano cadenza, and a return to the A section and original theme, with the music dying away in the key of E major.
3rd movement: Allegro scherzando in E major/C minor/C major
The third and final movement, Allegro scherzando, is about 12 minutes long – and it’s obviously way too detailed for us to get really deep in our analysis. But we can do some broad strokes.
Like the first movement, the third movement is in sonata form.
Just like the quick modulation from C minor to E major in the second movement, the third movement starts with a modulation from E major back to C minor. Our first theme of the exposition is heard in the piano, and it’s very stormy and agitated.
We’ll listen to a quick clip from the beginning of this movement, so you can hear the transition from E major to C minor, from playful to stormy.
After a brief piano bridge, theme 2 is introduced with the oboe. I want to show you this theme because it’s lovely, simple and lyrical – it shows Rachmaninoff’s skill with a melody.
The development section is very long and lively, and largely centered around the first theme. The recapitulation sees a triumphant end to the concerto in C major, with the full orchestra playing lively staccatos. It’s ecstatic, and unsurprisingly, incredibly difficult on the piano.
And that wraps up our discussion on Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2. It’s big and bold but full of subtleties – it belies confidence, which is interesting because Rachmaninoff seems like he was far from confident at the time of writing it.
I hope you enjoyed this analysis, and definitely check out a full performance when you have 40 minutes to get fully immersed. There are plenty of great YouTube videos out there – I’m partial to Evegny Kissin’s.
Performer: Skidmore College Orchestra
Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0