Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102
Dmitry Shostakovich was an outstanding pianist and in 1933 composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 for his own use upon his return to the concert platform after a lengthy hiatus. During that period he had composed his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which a few years later caused him so much grief with the authorities when Stalin himself decided it was decadent and “ugly.”
Twenty-four years later Shostakovich wrote a second Piano Concerto, this time as a birthday gift for his 19-year-old son, Maxim, then a piano student at the Moscow Conservatory. Maxim performed the premiere in 1957, but his interest in the piano waned and he became a respected conductor and noted interpreter of his father’s music.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 has much of the charm and sense of fun but little of the humor and bite of its older sibling. It avoids excessive virtuosity, with the piano and orchestra complementing rather than competing with each other. The first movement begins with a jaunty wind introduction and military march by the piano and a snare drum tattoo. Unlike the usual pattern in concerti, the piano introduces all the themes, providing a complex counterpoint as the orchestra repeats them. The piccolo over an ensemble of upper woodwinds ensemble has a central role as foil for the piano. But when the orchestra becomes too dominant and dramatic, the piano repeats the motive as a delicate solo. The movement ends with a lighthearted recapitulation of the march, with the piano and piccolo leading the orchestra to the finish.
The second movement Andante recalls the late nineteenth century Russian Romantics, especially Rachmaninov, in its tender, lyrical melodies. Neither the orchestra nor the piano ever raises its voice above a whisper, a feature that intensifies the gentle mood. The final Allegro follows without pause, introduced by a rollicking theme on the piano harking back to the playful mood of the first movement. According to the composer, some of the intricate scales and arpeggios come from an exercise book and were included “…as the only way I could make Maxim practice them.” The piccolo returns, leading the orchestra in a rhythmic refrain that serves as the material for considerable development by the piano.
The eager, brilliant tone and brisk and cheerful tempi are the probable reason that Disney artists chose excerpts from this concerto to use in the “Steadfast Tin Soldier” segment of the movie Fantasia 2000.
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27
The premiere performance of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony took place in St. Petersburg in 1897. It was a dismal failure, in large part due to the shoddy conducting of Alexander Glazunov, who was drunk. The disappointment brought on a severe depression, and for three years Rachmaninov was unable to do any significant composing. Finally in 1900 he went for therapy and hypnosis to Dr. Nikolay Dahl. The result was one of the first well-known successes of modern psychotherapy. Rachmaninov was consequently able to return to creative work on his Second Piano Concerto, dedicated to Dahl *. Relapses into depression dogged Rachmaninov, however, for the rest of his life. And significantly, all his large instrumental compositions, as well as most of the rest of his oeuvre, are in minor keys.
Rachmaninov refused to publish the failed symphony, and only acknowledged its existence by calling his next one No. 2. The Second Symphony was composed in 1906-07 in Dresden, where Rachmaninov had escaped from the social and professional demands in Russia. This expansive work, reflecting the composer’s love for long Romantic themes, was premiered with Rachmaninov on the podium in St. Petersburg in January 1908 to great applause.
The Symphony opens mysteriously, with a somber slow introduction, the low strings softly introducing a motto that reappears throughout the work. The violins introduce the first theme, an urgent, driving variant of the motto. A solo clarinet followed by the other woodwinds, introduces the lyrical second theme, answered by murmuring strings. The tension and passion increase, culminating in a series of climaxes accentuated with a liberal use of timpani and ending with a passionate transformation of the first theme as a coda.
The second movement is an energetic scherzo. Two of its most stunning aspects is Rachmaninov’s use of hushed fragments of his principal themes, to make suspenseful transitions between the large sections, and his use of the glockenspiel. The movement has three major themes, instead of the traditional two. It opens with the four horns in unison declaring the principal theme, a whirling melody. He then abruptly changes the mood and pace, introducing one of his broadly romantic themes on the violins. The next section starts as a sparkling fugue on the violins, the nemesis of every violin audition. Upon the return of the first two themes, Rachmaninov is said to have inserted one of his trademark musical quotations of the plainchant Dies irae, from the Mass for the Dead. But in this case, we beg to differ with the traditional analysis. While the melodic shape of the eight-note motive is the same as the chant, the important intervals are significantly altered and, in fact, outline the skeleton of first theme rather than introducing symbolic new musical material.
The best word for the Adagio is lush. Here Rachmaninov’s melodic talents created one of his most appealing and extended melodies, with which Hollywood has unfortunately had a heyday, shredding it into trivialized fragments. It opens with the violas, then the violins in a long string of triplets as an introduction. A clarinet solo presents the seamless theme and sets the mood of the movement. One by one, the other woodwinds repeat the melody, which they pass on to the strings. As the movement continues Rachmaninov brings in a variant of the introduction to the first movement, which is finally heard in its original form at the movement’s end.
The wild but festive rush of the exultant finale, marked Allegro vivace, recalls a tarantella. The movement is an expanded sonata form, for which Rachmaninov introduces the obligatory lyrical second theme for the strings. Throughout the movement, fragments from the three preceding movements reappear. The tarantella theme returns and the movement ends with a radiant and joyous coda.
* Dr. Dahl left Russia in 1925 and settled in Beirut, Lebanon, practicing general medicine. He played the viola in the orchestra of the American University of Beirut
Program notes by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn