No offense meant, but I can’t stand it when you people treat my favorite Russian composers on Twitter like a space rocket where only the first stage carries a payload and the second stage can be discarded after lift-off. “Tchaik6” or “Rach2” – I will have none of that. Today it will be Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus 18 full stop. I had the immense pleasure to hear it performed yesterday at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg under the Czech conductor Juraj Valcuha and the Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev for the solo part. A delightful evening!
Fighting against the tears
Pletnev – most likely under trance, hypnotized by the music – struck me by his apparent coolness contrasting with the emotions he set free in the audience. A row ahead of me to my left, a young women was fighting hard to keep back the tears during the adagio that Pletnev played with utmost delicacy. That says enough, I guess, and I must confess, I felt like weeping myself. Few concerts have moved me up to this degree. Pletnev displayed interesting emotions too. Every now and then, he would drop his mask and raise an eyebrow like “Oh, here comes a note and… ah, here comes another one… and that one… fits in here”.
What I hadn’t realized, is the fact that the pianist hardly get’s a break during the concert. That means the orchestra needs to synchronize with the pianist almost constantly, there was no room for mistakes in tempo or expression. And the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg was up to the challenge. Praise to all those excellent musicians – the long applause was appropriate!
I was equally surprised by the many subtleties hidden in the score – clarinet and percussion for example – that I heard during yesterday’s live performance for the first time. I had missed them so far even though I have listened to that concerto many, many times on recordings. It was like discovering Rachmaninov’s piece a second time. Excellent!
Finding the inner strength
Since I have retraced Sergei Rachmaninov’s life in earlier posts, I will not bore you with more biographical details, but instead shed some light on the making of this beautifully melancholic piece. It was written in 1900/01 after Rachmaninov had gone through a severe personal crisis. His first symphony had been heavily criticized when first performed in 1897. Rachmaninov was utterly devastated and had not been able to write a single note for three years. Total blackout. He sought the help of a friend, who happened to be an amateur musician and a neurologist specialized in hypnosis, Nikolay Dahl, to get him back up and running.
Dahl used hypnosis to teach Rachmaninov how to recover his inner strength, his creativity and his former energy. Rachmaninov had to repeat over and over again sentences meant to give him self-confidence: “I will be composing again”, “My concert will be excellent” and the like. Through this exercise, his sub-conscience was to be positively influenced. Apparently Dahl and Rachmaninov were successful, the outcome being this fantastic piece of music. Rachmaninov must have seen it that way and he dedicated the concerto to Dahl. Rachmaninov himself gave the first performance of the concerto in November 1901.
Mirroring the composer’s therapy
If I were to interpret the piece, I would say that the first movement looks back on Rachmaninov’s depressive phase and describes his mood in dark, painful and violent melodies. In the second movement, the moving adagio, he says goodbye to that mood – the flute theme – with a hint of a regret, like saying good-bye to a past love knowing that one has to move on. Movement number 3 reflects his effort to think positive, to motivate himself and his final victory. It bursts of vitality and has none of the gloominess of first movement.
Yesterday evening, the dramatic evolution of the piece was palpable as Mikhail Pletnev hammered away at the piano in first and third movement and almost floated over the keys for the second one. To any enthusiast who does not have the possibility to hear Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 live I can recommend the recording by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the pianist Howard Shelley. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg played yesterday evening a second, equally nice piece written by Rachmaninov: his second symphony. But this special post has reached its end. I will not spoil the fun, the symphony will have to wait.
© Charles Thibo