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ClassicsOnline Home » RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)
Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor, Opus 18
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43
The Russian composer and pianist Sergey Rachmaninov was born in 1873,
the son of aristocratic parents. His father's improvidence, however, was to
lead to a change in the fortunes of the family, when increasing debts led to
the sale of one estate after another, followed by removal to an apartment in
St. Petersburg. It was in that city that Rachmaninov, at the age of nine,
entered the Conservatory on a scholarship.
The subsequent separation of his parents and failure in general subject
examinations was to bring about Rachmaninov's move to the Moscow Conservatory,
where he was under the strict supervision of Nikolay Zverev. In Moscow he was
to win considerable success as time went on, both as a performer and as a
composer, although it was the second of these roles that seemed likely to be
the more important.
The Communist Revolution of 1917 was to bring many changes. While some
musicians remained in Russia, others chose temporary or permanent exile.
Rachmaninov took the latter course, and found himself obliged to rely on his
very considerable gifts as a pianist in order to support himself and his
family. At the same time he was to continue working as a conductor. Composition
inevitably had to take second or third place, and it was principally as a
concert pianist, one of the greatest of his time, that he became known to
In 1897 Rachmaninov's first symphony had been performed in St.
Petersburg under the direction of Glazunov, who, according to his wife's later
account, was drunk at the time. The work was badly played and received a
hostile critical reception. Cesar Cui, indeed, a surviving member of the
Mightly Handful, the five leading Russian nationalist composers, described it
as a student programme symphony of the Seven Plagues of Egypt, an unflattering
judgement that contributed to the composer's depression and loss of confidence.
The C Minor Piano Concerto
was written in 1900 and 1901 and is dedicated to Dr. Nikolay Dahl, under whom
Rachmaninov had undergone a course of psychiatric treatment that restored his
creative urge. The second and third movements of a work that was to prove to be
one of the most popular romantic piano concertos, were completed in the summer
of 1900 and the first movement in the following year. In November 1901 it was
performed in Moscow under the direction of Rachmaninov's cousin, Alexander
Ziloti, with the composer as soloist and was received with the greatest
enthusiasm. The work has retained its position in the repertoire, although it
has at the same time served as a model for regrettably vulgar imitations that
have nothing of the innovative inspiration of the original.
The first movement of the concerto opens with eight dramatic chords
from the piano, followed by the first theme from the strings, accompanied by
piano arpeggios. The second subject, played by the soloist, is introduced by a
phrase on the viola, rhapsodic style by the pianist in a development and in a
recapitulation to which the soloist adds an initially martial element.
In the slow movement the orchestra moves gently from the key of C minor
to the remote key of E major, in which the soloist enters with characteristic
figuration. The principal theme is introduced by flute and clarinet, before
being taken up by the soloist. The more rapid central section of the movement
suggests the mood of a scherzo, leading to a powerful cadenza.
With scarcely a pause the orchestra introduces the final movement, a
further cadenza leading to the first theme, with a second announced by the oboe
and violas. Both are treated rhapsodically by the soloist, the second theme
forming a romantic contrast to the more energetic rhythm of the first.
The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
was written in the space of a few weeks in 1934 and is based on the theme used
by Paganini as the basis of a set of solo violin variations that form the last
of his 24 Caprices. The melody
was to serve other composers, such as Brahms and Liszt, and has continued to do
To Rachmaninov the Paganini theme suggested the complementary use of
another, more ancient melody, that of the sequence that once formed part of the
Latin Requiem Mass, the Dies irae. This second melody, which
Rachmaninov had used appropriately enough in The Isle of the Dead, was to
appear again in his final work, the Symphonic
Dances of 1940. It had served other 19th century composers as a
symbol of death, whether in the Symphonie
fantastique of Berlioz, in Liszt's TotentanzThird Suite.
Although the Rhapsody seems in origin to have had no programmatic
significance, the composer provided a narrative explanation for Fokin's ballet Paganini, the choreographic version of the
legend according to which the great violinist had sold his soul, Faust-like, to
the Devil in return for perfection as a violinist and for the love of a woman
(romantic rumours that Paganini himself had been at pains to contradict). The Dies irae is taken to represent the Devil,
while the original theme is Paganini himself. Certainly the variations that
make up the Rhapsody include episodes of lyrical tenderness, forming a central
section of romantic intensity, followed by what might seem the brilliant
diablerie of the last six of the 24 variations.
Jeno Jandó was born at Pécs, in south Hungary, in 1952. He started to
learn the piano when he was seven and later studied at the Ferenc Liszt Academy
of Music under Katalin Nemes and Pal Kadosa, becoming assistant to the latter
on his graduation in 1974. Jandó has won a number of piano competitions in
Hungary and abroad, including first prize in the 1973 Hungarian Piano Concours
and a first prize in the chamber music category at the Sydney International
Piano Competition in 1977. In addition to his many appearances in Hungary, he
has played widely abroad in Eastern and Western Europe, in Canada and in Japan.
Budapest Symphony Orchestra
The Budapest Symphony Orchestra, part of the Hungarian Television and
Broadcasting Organisation, was established after the Second World War and under
its Principal Conductor György Lehel has won some distinction. Through its
frequent broadcasts and its recordings it has become widely known, and its
tours have taken it to the countries of Eastern and Western Europe as well as
to the United States of America and Canada. The orchestra has worked with some
of the most distinguished conductors and soloists of our time.
The distinguished Hungarian conductor Gyorgy Lehel was born in Budapest
in 1926 and studied composition with pal Kadosa and composition with Laszlo
Somogyi, making his debut as a conductor in 1947. He was appointed principal
conductor and music director of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra in 1962 and
appeared in 1968 with the orchestra at the Cheltenham Festival, where he
conducted first performances of music by Gordon Crosse and Elizabeth Maconchy.
In a busy career Lehel has performed extensively in Hungary and abroad,
in Western and Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, the United States of America,
Japan, Australia and New Zealand. His many recordings include a considerable
amount of music by Liszt and Bartok, and he has long been known for the great
encouragement he has consistently given to younger Hungarian composers. The
many awards he has received include the Liszt Prize in Hungary and an Honorary
Doctorate of Music from the Chicago Conservatory.
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