Born: Apr 1, 1873; Russia
Died: Mar 28, 1943; USA
Period: 20th Century
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninov, born in Semyonovo, Russia, on April 1, 1873, is today remembered as one of the most formidable pianists of all time and the last truly great composer in the Russian Romantic tradition. Rachmaninov came from a music-loving, land-owning family; young Sergey's mother fostered the boy's innate talent by giving him his first piano lessons. After a decline in the family fortunes, the Rachmaninovs moved to St. Petersburg,Read more where Sergei studied with Vladimir Delyansky at the Conservatory. As his star continued to rise, Sergei went to the Moscow Conservatory, where he received a sound musical training: piano lessons from the strict disciplinarian Nikolay Zverev and Alexander Siloti (Rachmaninov's cousin), counterpoint with Taneyev, and harmony with Arensky. During his time at the Conservatory, Rachmaninov boarded with Zverev, whose weekly musical Sundays provided the young musician the valuable opportunity to make important contacts and to hear a wide variety of music.
As Rachmaninov's conservatory studies continued, his burgeoning talent came into full flower; he received the personal encouragement of Tchaikovsky, and, a year after earning a degree in piano, took the Conservatory's gold medal in composition for his opera Aleko (1892). Early setbacks in his compositional career -- particularly, the dismal reception of his Symphony No. 1 (1895) -- led to an extended period of depression and self-doubt, which he overcame with the aid of hypnosis. With the resounding success of his Piano Concerto No. 2 (1900-1901), however, his lasting fame as a composer was assured. The first decade of the twentieth century proved a productive and happy one for Rachmaninov, who during that time produced such masterpieces as the Symphony No. 2 (1907), the tone poem Isle of the Dead (1907), and the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909). On May 12, 1902, the composer married his cousin, Natalya Satina.
By the end of the decade, Rachmaninov had embarked on his first American tour, which cemented his fame and popularity in the United States. He continued to make his home in Russia but left permanently following the Revolution in 1917; he thereafter lived in Switzerland and the United States between extensive European and American tours. While his tours included conducting engagements (he was twice offered, and twice refused, leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), it was his astounding pianistic abilities which won him his greatest glory. Rachmaninov was possessed of a keyboard technique marked by precision, clarity, and a singular legato sense. Indeed, the pianist's hands became the stuff of legend. He had an enormous span -- he could, with his left hand, play the chord C-E flat-G-C-G -- and his playing had a characteristic power, which pianists have described as "cosmic" and "overwhelming." He is, for example, credited with the uncanny ability to discern, and articulate profound, mysterious movements in a musical composition which usually remain undetected by the superficial perception of rhythmic structures.
Fortunately for posterity, Rachmaninov recorded much of his own music, including the four piano concerti and what is perhaps his most beloved work, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934). He became an American citizen a few weeks before his death in Beverly Hills, CA, on March 28, 1943. Read less
Work: Sonata for Piano no 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36
Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.36 - Original version (1913) - 1. Allegro agitato
Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.36 - Original version (1913) - 2. Non allegro - Lento
Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.36 - Original version (1913) - 3. Allegro molto
About This Work
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,Read more
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.
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