Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Sergei Rachmaninov

Turning 40 in 1913, Rachmaninov began the year with respite from a grueling schedule of concerts in Moscow, where he was in demand as pianist and conductor. In December 1912, he left for holiday in Switzerland and moved on to Rome with the new year, where he began in earnest the composition of his great choral work The Bells, setting an adaptation of Poe's poem by symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont. Two of his daughters contracted typhoid there, forcing an abrupt removal to Berlin for a hospital stay, before the family returned to their country estate, Ivanovka, in southern Russia. Composition of the Piano Sonata No. 2 occupied him from January into September of that year, concomitantly with orchestration of The Bells. To place the lush, late Romanticism of these works in perspective, one may recall that such foundation documents of Modernism as Schoenberg's Three Pieces for piano, Op. 11, had appeared in 1909, his Pierrot lunaire and Busoni's Sonatina seconda in 1912, while Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps received its premiere May 29, 1913. The Sonata No. 2 demonstrates in abundance those qualities of Rachmaninov's art that make his music permanently appealing, hence valuable, and great. The Allegro agitato opening seizes one by the hair with an arpeggiated plunge to the bass, two sharply peremptory chords (announcing the crucial interval of a third), and a falling, wailing figure in the left hand beneath tremolando triplets in the right, giving way to great waves of kinetic nervosité. It is the entrance of a great actor. Where the Sonata No. 1 indulged a luxuriant sprawl to play for over half-an-hour, the Second rushes past in about 20 tensely breathless minutes, its taut organization and formal elegance apt to be overlooked in its rhapsodic outpouring. Rachmaninov's 1931 revision -- the version usually heard -- cut 120 bars from the original, pared some of the virtuosic extravagances, and made for more transparent textures. The second movement, following without a break, works melancholy from nostalgic elegy to a fever before a slashing arpeggiated descent brings on the alternately anxious and towering finale -- with its snatches of a parodied march -- shot through with one of Rachmaninov's most compelling lyric inspirations confided first in single notes and valorized in the peroration in massive, surging chords before a final virtuoso wash of triumphant sonority. While its impeccable musical logic may be demonstrated, its impact -- in the hands of great pianist -- is compellingly visceral.

-- Adrian Corleonis