Saturday, May 18, 2013

Rachmaninoff - Symphony No. 2 in E Minor

Sergei Rachmaninoff was an immensely gifted pianist and fine orchestral conductor, but he thought of himself first and foremost as a composer. In his earlier years while still in Russia, he composed most of his 45 opus numbered works. With the political and cultural upheaval brought about by the Russian Revolution of 1917,  Rachmaninoff lost his livelihood (his family were members of the bourgeoisie) and fled the country, never to return.

From 1917 until his death in 1943, Rachmaninoff was constantly on tour in Europe and the United States as pianist and conductor to provide for his family and had little time or inclination to compose. He composed only six more opus numbers during those years.  His prodigious memory was legendary, along with his singing piano tone, quiet demeanor at the keyboard, and his huge hands. He was one of the great piano virtuosos of the 20th century.

His success as a composer came while he was still a student. His one-act opera Aleko was written in 1892 and was such a success that the Bolshoi Theater agreed to perform it.  The Symphony No. 2 was written in 1906-07 and was first performed in 1908 at St. Petersburg with the composer conducting.

The symphony is in 4 movements:
I. Largo, Allegro moderato - The symphony begins with a slow introduction with the low strings stating the main motif that will appear in various forms in all four of the movements. This motif dominates the introduction and main section of the movement as it begins quietly and slowly and through variations transforms into powerful music played by the full orchestra. The secondary theme of the movement has the strings and woodwinds alternate until the theme ends quietly. The development section begins with a solo violin initially playing the main theme which is again transformed into rapidly moving variants until a passionate climax is reached. The recapitulation begins, the second theme is emphasized in the parallel key of E major. The end of the movement returns to the home key of E minor and brings the opening movement to a resounding close.

II. Allegro molto -  Unlike many symphonic scherzos that are written in three beats to the measure, this one is written in two beats to the measure. It is in the usual scherzo-trio-scherzo form, but the scherzo itself has two contrasting themes, as does the trio. It's a combination of the traditional scherzo with aspects of sonata form also. The second theme of the scherzo itself resembles the main motif of the first movement in motion and rhythm.

III. Adagio - Along with an innate sense of rich orchestration, Rachmaninoff is also well-known for a remarkable gift of melody. One of his best melodies is heard here as the movement begins with the violin and then the main theme of the movement (which itself is related to the main motif of the first movement) is played by the solo clarinet. The movement has two other themes that Rachmaninoff states and then weaves them contrapuntally with the initial theme.

IV. Allegro vivace - The last movement begins brilliantly in E major. The initial theme is interrupted by a secondary theme, after which the initial theme returns. It soon makes way for a broad theme that the orchestra sings at length. A brief reference is made to material from the third movement which leads to the development of themes, a repeat of the themes, and a rousing ending to the work.

Rachmaninoff refers to differing themes within and without movements, all of which are related to the very first motif heard in the low strings in the slow introduction. This gives a structural and aural continuity to the entire work which helps it to be liked and appreciated by experienced concert listeners as well as casual listeners. It's one of the best examples I know of music that just 'sounds' right to many ears. The work of a master musician and composer, one of Rachmaninoff's finest compositions.

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