A guide to Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony and his best recordings

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Perfectly proportioned, ingeniously constructed and melodically exultant, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony represents – alongside his Third Piano Concerto – the creative peak of the composer’s period of recovery from the critical criticism inflicted on his First Symphony a decade earlier.

Alexander Glazunov’s first callous and (seemingly) inebriated account of RachmaninoffCésar’s fledgling symphony had inspired one of fellow composer César Cui’s most infamous criticisms: “If there was a conservatory in hell and one of its talented students was asked to compose a symphony program based on the seven plagues of Egypt. , if he were to write something resembling Mr. Rachmaninoff’s symphony, he would surely have arrived at the perfect solution and would undoubtedly thoroughly entertain all the creatures of Hell.

When Rachmaninov composes his Second Symphony?

Rachmaninoff began to suffer from psychosomatic pains in his hands and legs, and his inspiration practically dried up. It took three years of support from various members of his extended family and a course in groundbreaking hypnotherapy to get him back on track with his Second piano concerto. By the time he completed the first movement of his new symphony in the fall of 1906, he was in full creative swing and in great demand as a composer, pianist and conductor.

It was to get away from the hustle and bustle of Moscow life that Rachmaninoff went on a working holiday to Dresden, where he wrote to his friend Nikita Morozov – whom he had known from composition lessons when he was a student – ​​that the remaining three movements had taken three and a half, two and four weeks respectively. While in Dresden he heard a performance, conducted by the composer, of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome, then only a year, which seems to have made a most favorable impression “except when the music got too discordant!”

How was Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony received?

Back in Russia, Rachmaninoff premiered his new symphony on January 26, 1908 in St. Petersburg to great acclaim and later received the Glinka Prize of 1,000 rubles. After the premiere, critic-composer Yuli Engel enthusiastically reported: “Despite his 34 [Rachmaninov] is one of the most important figures in the world of contemporary music, a worthy successor to Tchaikovsky. After having listened with unfailing attention to its four movements, we note with surprise that the hands of the watch have advanced by 65 minutes. It may be too long for the general public, but how fresh, how beautiful! The book was dedicated to Sergei Taneyev, Rachmaninoff’s teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, whose observance of strict procedure had proved invaluable. Just seven years later, Taneyev died of pneumonia after catching a chill at Scriabin’s funeral.

Between the wars, the gloriously expansive contours of the symphony were to prove too many good things for Western audiences, who were then more accustomed to the catchy, hip neo-classical fairy tale emanating (mostly) from Paris. As a result, Rachmaninoff put on a good face and sanctioned several major cuts amounting to some 300 bars. However, shortly before his death, he confessed to conductor Eugène Ormandy (one of his most dedicated champions): “You don’t know what the cuts do to me. It’s like cutting off a piece of my heart.

3 of the best recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony

London Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO 0851

In the 21st century, LSO Live also gave us a powerful and much-loved narrative under the direction of Valery Gergiev made in 2008. But I think this recording, taken from a concert given in 2019, is even better. Not only does it feature superior quality orchestral play, but Rattle’s wonderfully fluid approach, his masterful control of rubato and a keen sensitivity to all the different colors of this opulently scored work combine to produce an interpretation that keeps you engaged from bar one to last.

Erik Levi gave this recording the full five stars when he reviewed it in 2021. Read the full review

Staatskapelle Dresden/Antonio Pappano
EuroArts 0880242676481

Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, completed in 1908 during the composer’s three-year stay in the city, is in this sense particularly associated with the Staatskapelle. They play it to a standard that befits their status as a special orchestra in the world – silky strings, wonderfully blended woodwind chords and a horn section to suit anyone anywhere (the silent peroration towards the end of Scherzo movement is one of those many moments).

Pappano conducts with his characteristic energy, avoiding the over-juicing of the music’s late Romantic idiom, and gives the orchestra plenty of time and space to express themselves with class. The accompanying “documentary” isn’t really that – it mostly consists of Pappano talking about the music and illustrating it on the piano.

Malcolm Hayes gwith this recording the full five stars when he saw it again in 2020. Read his full review

Deutsche Sinfonie-Orchestre Berlin/Robin Ticciati
Linn CKD653 Folders

How much rubato should be applied to Rachmaninoff’s music? Taking the composer’s recordings as a criterion would suggest that it should be used sparingly. Yet in a work as lavishly romantic and expansive in structure as his Second Symphony, there is an obvious temptation to squeeze the last ounce of emotion out of every sumptuous melody. Problems arise, however, if tempo fluctuations are pushed to their limits as such an approach threatens to undermine the symphonic coherence of Rachmaninoff’s musical argument.

Thankfully, Robin Ticciati doesn’t fall into this trap in the slow movement, caught at a beautifully fluid tempo that allows time for the glorious melodies and ecstatic climaxes to unfold. Indeed, Ticciati’s approach seems more touching to avoid any hint of self-indulgence or sentimentality.

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