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Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Sergey Rachmaninov grew up in a middle-class musical family, but under strained economic conditions. His father, a gambler and an alcoholic, squandered the familys fortune to the point that eventually his mother and father separated, and she had to sell what remained of the familys assets and move into a small apartment in St. Petersburg. Sergey whose care in better times would have been entrusted to a nanny consequently grew up with little supervision.
His schooling suffered as a result. Although he showed early promise as a pianist and obtained a scholarship to study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the administration threatened to expel him for failing to attend classes. He subsequently transferred to the Moscow Conservatory where his mentor, Nikolay Zverev, discouraged his initial attempts at composing. Nevertheless, Rachmaninov continued to march to his own drummer, defying his teacher and transferring to classes in counterpoint and composition.
Clearly, his sense of his own worth was more accurate than that of his professors. While still a student, he produced a string of successful works, including the tone poem Prince Rostislav, his First Piano Trio, and a flood songs and piano pieces. For his graduation in 1892 he composed the opera Aleko, which won him the highest distinction, the Great Gold Medal. The same year he also composed the Prelude in C-sharp minor, a work whose inordinate fame haunted him all his life because audiences always expected and demanded it as an encore at his performances as one of historys greatest pianists.
By 1895 Rachmaninov felt confident enough to compose a symphony. The premiere took place in St. Petersburg in 1897 but was a dismal failure, in large part because to the shoddy conducting of Alexander Glazunov who was under the influence. Whereas earlier setbacks had produced in the young composer creative defiance, this disappointment brought on a severe depression. For three years he was unable to do any significant composing. After consulting numerous physicians and advisors, even asking old Leo Tolstoy for help, he finally went for therapy in 1900 to Dr. Nikolay Dahl, an internist who had studied hypnosis and rudimentary psychiatry in Paris. The result was one of the first well-known successes of modern psychotherapy. Although the composer was able to return to creative work, relapses into depression dogged him for the rest of his life. Significantly, all his large instrumental compositions are in minor keys, and one of the melodic themes recurring in many of his compositions is the Dies irae from the Catholic mass for the dead reminding mourners of the terrors of the day of judgment.
Rachmaninov expressed his gratitude to Dr. Dahl by dedicating the Second Piano Concerto to him. The first performance of the complete work, in November 1901with the composer at the piano, was an instant success. It is Rachmaninovs most frequently performed and recorded orchestral work. It even found its way into Hollywood as background music to the World War II movie Brief Encounter.
The first movement opens with dark, plodding unaccompanied chords on the piano that increase in intensity and volume, gradually joined by the orchestra and leading to the first theme. The effect is like the tolling of the giant low-pitched bells common in Russian churches. The second broadly romantic theme is a Rachmaninov signature. The lyrical mood is sustained throughout until the coda with its sudden conclusion in a dramatic burst of energy.
In the Adagio sostenuto, muted strings, followed by the piano left hand hesitantly accompany the high woodwinds. The right hand then joins the woodwinds in dreamy interplay. After a brief energetic cadenza, the atmosphere of the beginning returns.
The beginning of the third movement in the lower range of the orchestra is deceptively gentle, enhancing the surprise of the sudden sparkling piano cadenza. The main theme, introduced by the violas and oboes, is intensely passionate in the same vein as the second theme of the opening movement. After a surprisingly calm episode, the tempo increases to presto; and after another short cadenza the highest instruments in the orchestra take up the theme, culminating in a glittering climax.
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47
Volumes have been written about Dmitry Shostakovich and his ambivalent relationship with the Soviet regime. Much of this writing is based on after-the-fact statements whose authenticity and veracity is often questionable. What is clear is that the composer began as a true son of the Russian Revolution and, as teenager, a true believer. But in his late 20s he became caught up in the Stalinist nightmare.
Shostakovichs roller coaster ride from Soviet adulation to denunciation began in January 1936 when an article appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda severely criticizing his successful new opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District. The result was that, upon the order of the government, the opera as well as the rest of the composers music was withdrawn from the stage and the concert hall. For the first of many times Shostakovich was cast into Soviet limbo, his music unperformed, his livelihood withdrawn and his life in jeopardy. In later years he recalled that he was so certain of being arrested that he would sleep with his suitcase packed near the front door so that if the secret police were to pick him up they would not disturb the rest of the family.
Shostakovichs response was to go in two directions. Because of his fame both at home and abroad, the government was willing to give him the chance to earn a living composing music for propaganda films and politically correct spectacles. To satisfy his own creative energy, he composed works for the drawer. Some of his greatest and most personal works did not see the light of day until after Stalins death in 1953.
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