Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2, by Stephen Hough

Rachmaninov is unsurpassed when it comes to producing colour from harmony, says Hough

This amazing, famous and wonderful piano concerto is very original, although you can hear that it draws upon Tchaikovsky’s First in certain stylistic respects, most obviously at the end; Tchaikovsky invented this way of having a wonderful big tune that sums up the whole experience of the piece, then a final two minutes with the pianist rushing all over the keyboard with tremendous virtuosity. So in the final three minutes you get a double punch of all the emotion and excitement that’s there; and then after the piece is over there’s the applause, which I think is also a part of the music, part of what both composers expected to happen. I think if you imagine the end of Tchaikovsky’s First or Rachmaninov’s Second without applause, it feels like a leg’s been cut off. The piece leads towards that climax, that ending. It’s a certain Romantic concerto formula, but I don’t think anyone’s really managed to do it quite as well as it’s done here, except perhaps Rachmaninov himself in his Third Piano Concerto.

He wrote the Second Concerto in 1900-01, pretty much at the beginning of his career, when he still thought of himself primarily as a composer rather than a pianist. By the time of the Third, he was playing more (he wrote that one for his first US tour), and then he stopped writing altogether for a good decade when he left Russia and was earning money by having to play a lot of concerts. The Second Concerto is very awkward to play. Rachmaninov was one of the greatest pianists of all time, but he hadn’t written that much for piano when he wrote this piece; by the time he’d written the Third you already feel there’s a lot more experience in his writing for the instrument. There are more notes, but it lies so much more easily under the hands.

The beginning

Until around the Second World War, a pianist did not walk out on to the stage and start to play a piece. He or she would walk out and improvise a few bars, then start the piece. This is true right back to the time of Mozart and Beethoven. This piece does just this – you walk out and start warming up, playing a few chords, from the softest you can play, to the loudest you can play. You’re testing the instrument, you’re testing the audience, you’re quietening down the audience, you’re putting the audience in the mood of the piece and you’re playing these rich wonderful chords – Rachmaninov knew so well how to make colour out of harmony. Then you land on the loudest chords and start warming up with arpeggios – you’re testing the strength and agility of your fingers. For the next few minutes, you don’t really hear the pianist. He or she is playing away, and the orchestra’s playing this wonderful tune with an orchestration that’s thick enough virtually to cover the piano. We know Rachmaninov was a nervous performer – most great pianists are nervous – and this is the perfect opening for a nervous pianist.

Then you have an awkward sparkly passage, flourishing when it goes più mosso. You’re ready to go, and Rachmaninov gives you not virtuosity, but one of the most beautiful melodies he’s ever written. He wins over the hearts of the audience by playing a tune by which no one can fail to be melted. That’s the psychology of this piece. It was his breakthrough – the first piece that put him on the map. It’s not cutting edge, but there he was with the great masters of the 20th century. I’d put him there with the Stravinskys and the Schoenbergs and the other seminal forces without whom music of the last century would be unthinkable.

Gorgeous tunes

This concerto is one that’s never been cut and never been thought to be possible to cut. The piece has never been tinkered with, never been adjusted. That would be unthinkable, because there’s something perfect about its form. It flows; it has this sense of inevitability as the music moves along. The other thing to mention is that, yes, the tunes are gorgeous, but what makes them so is the harmony. Rachmaninov’s harmony – his chromaticism, his way of using inner voices – is original. He’s a great contrapuntalist, not in the sense of writing fugues like Bach, but as a harmonic contrapuntalist. His harmonies have this inner movement, this shifting, this undulation underneath the melody, which gives the melody its great power. When we sing tunes to ourselves the brain adds the harmony without us even realising it; and there are some tunes by Rachmaninov that without the harmony would be very boring and very dead. It’s when you add that harmony that they become poignant.

The second movement is the great lyrical, melodic movement of the piece and you get a fine example of counterpoint within the harmony in the way that the piano accompanies when the flute comes in with the melody. It’s a texture for someone with big hands, because the stretches in Rachmaninov’s music are often very large. He wrote for his own hands; and for many of us, whose hands are not as large as his were, there are moments when it’s not comfortable to play. The beginning of the second movement is like that – stretching while also shaping underneath is a challenge. If you stretch your hand out as wide as possible, the tendons are tight and you’ll have less control of your muscles.

Spot-on psychology

In all four concertos, the beginning of the last movement has some of the most difficult music. The first time that theme appears in the piano in the triplets, it’s very awkwardly written. You also have this idea of a ‘big tune’. It doesn’t happen just once – we hear it three times. After the opening section in the scherzando mood that Rachmaninov does so wonderfully, he presents us with this gorgeous melody. It’s all a long way from the home key of C minor. That sets us up for the coda, which builds up and up, and there’s a cadenza with the tune we’ve heard twice before. The orchestra plays it with full force and the piano accompanies with chords. The psychology is so right. It’s like when a great writer tells you who did the crime at the very point that you want to know – the calculation is just perfect.

Even though Rachmaninov went on to write more modern works such as the Symphonic Dances and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, underneath it all there’s a 19th-century aesthetic. He’s part of that Russian pre-revolutionary way of thinking about the world. He was an unashamed aristocrat, really. His music was put down by intellectuals and musicologists in the 1960s and ’70s who were infected with this idea of getting rid of the old world. This piece was a more-or-less annual mainstay at the Proms until the 1960s, but it was played just once between 1968 and 1987. Then, gradually, it began to be deemed great again, largely thanks to recordings. It turned a corner, and somehow a new generation of musicologists came along who started to look objectively at this music and realised that, actually, not only is it attractive, but it’s extremely well written too. Rachmaninov was a great craftsman, a great composer – one could say one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, because what became film music emerged from two sources, in terms of orchestral music: Rachmaninov, and Holst’s The Planets. Between those styles you have most of what we think of as the great film music of the past century.

Rachmaninov’s music is for listeners of all ages. The wonderful thing about classical music in general (and this is something that we should market more) is that it’s completely ageless. It is for people with a mind and a heart, whatever age they are. It’s potentially a very equalising force, and I think it’s sad that classical music has come to be seen as socially divisive, something for the middle classes, when really it’s for everyone. This is the message we should be conveying to people. It’s not easy to listen to. It doesn’t just wash over you. It is really a challenge – but it’s for everyone with a bit of passion.

Explore more great piano concertos

Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5, by Paul Lewis

Brahms Piano Concerto No 2, by Nicholas Angelich

Grieg Piano Concerto, by Leif Ove Andsnes

Mozart Piano Concerto No 27, by Angela Hewitt

Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3, by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Ravel Piano Concerto in G, by Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Schumann Piano Concerto, by Ingrid Fliter

Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 2, by Alexander Melnikov

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1, by Yevgeny Sudbin

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