Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto: An Eruption of Youthful Vitality

Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto begins with a bold announcement. It’s a striking fanfare in the horns which evokes all of the ominous power of the fateful opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. This fanfare unleashes an equally exuberant proclamation in the virtuosic solo piano, which erupts like a force of nature. Filled with audacious youthful vitality, this unstoppable sonic torrent seems to be saying, “My time has come, and nothing is going to get …

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Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony: Freedom in Exile

Sergei Rachmaninov spent much of his life in exile, both literally and as a composer. In December of 1917 at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninov and his wife, Natalia, fled Russia, eventually building their Villa Senar on the idyllic shores of Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. It was here that Rachmaninov composed the Symphony No. 3 in A minor during the summers of 1935 and 1936. His work on this final symphony was interrupted by an …

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Rachmaninov’s “Symphonic Dances”: Releasing Old Demons

There is a fascinating moment of emotional release near the end of the first movement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  Completed in 1940 and dedicated to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, this was Rachmaninov’s final composition. This music, which Rachmaninov described as “my last spark,” stands as an extraordinary musical summation. It reflects on the past with wistful nostalgia, yet we also get the sense of a spirited and joyful march into the sunset. In …

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Rachmaninov’s First Symphony: From Despair to Posthumous Triumph

The world was not ready for Sergei Rachmaninov’s First Symphony. The disastrous premiere of Symphony No. 1 in D minor in St. Petersburg on March 28, 1897 shattered the 23-year-old composer’s confidence, plunging him into a psychological breakdown. For three years he would compose no music, emerging in the autumn of 1900 with the soaringly melodic Second Piano Concerto only after extensive psychotherapy. “Forgive me, but I do not find this music at all agreeable.” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov …

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Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5: Horowitz at the Met, 1981

Let’s finish the week where we began, with a powerful live-concert recording of the legendary Russian-born American pianist, Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989). This performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5 concluded Horowitz’ November 1, 1981 recital at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Completed in 1901, the Prelude in G minor opens with the same kind of spirited march we hear in the opening movement of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Moments of soaring, heroic bravura are a reminder of …

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Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata: Horowitz at Carnegie Hall, 1968

He swallowed it whole…He had the courage, the intensity, and daring that make for greatness. This is how Sergei Rachmaninov described Vladimir Horowitz’ performance of his Third Piano Concerto- a piece so difficult to play that it even intimidated the composer. Rachmaninov and Horowitz came face to face at New York’s Steinway Hall in January, 1928. It was the violinist Fritz Kreisler who brought them together, telling the composer “some young Russian plays [the] Third …

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The “Philadelphia Sound” in Five Historic Recordings

These days, the professional orchestra world is characterized by unparalleled technical skill, dutiful attention to historically-informed performance practice, and a general homogenization of sound and style. Musicians are expected to transition, instantly and seamlessly, from the lush Romanticism of Tchaikovsky to the lean purity of Mozart, with the mixed meters of Stravinsky and John Adams thrown in for good measure. In many ways, it’s the best of times. Perhaps what has been …

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