Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto by no means falls into the category of “academically classical music”. Rather, it is a bright example of “sublime popular music”. This is a perfectly new genre still only subconsciously perceived by people, but having no formal definition as a unique genre.
Rachmaninov’s piano technique and his gift for composing bring his popular music to unattainable heights. And yet, it is not an academically serious music with the distinctive features of deep, philosophically saturated thought, but fine “sublime popular music”, just like many other works of Rachmaninov’s.
Popular music has three distinctive features, three basic principles: sensualism, simplicity of the music language, and “drive”. Rachmaninov is not one of the so called “composers-philosophers”. His best works are based on a feeling of profound love, “musical art”, and poetry.
Without doubt, his Second Concerto is his best piano concerto; moreover, it is his best composition for piano. Never before or since was Rachmaninov able to express the spirituality of a loving heart in his music so deeply and so fully.
You don’t have to look for philosophical thought in this composition. It’s saturated with a deep and pure feeling of love, pictures of “musical art”, and poetical images. All together, it forms a “musical self-portrait” of the author, whose purpose in life is the poetical love for a woman and life itself.
The concerto opens with eight strikes of a massive bell-like tolling. As if the bell is speaking directly to us, we hear Rachmaninov’s confession of love. This music is dedicated to the awakening from a state of “spiritual death” which the composer experienced at the period before his rebirth as a person and as a composer. This resurgence “from the ashes” is exactly what the composer is reciting here in his best piano concerto.
The primary theme that sounds in the string section of the orchestra after the bell opening is the depiction of the composer himself. This is the theme of Rachmaninov’s “soul base” that he associates with the beauty, potency, and metaphysical characteristics of Russian nature.
Short and lively transition to the secondary theme brings us into the intimate world of Rachmaninov’s. The theme is associated with falling in love and enjoying the feeling.
The middle part is depicting the awakening of nature after “dying” over the winter months. Here, Rachmaninov demonstrates his imitation skills in the description of different states of nature in music. We can hear the sounds of the forest and bird voices, among which are the charming cries of the spring-welcoming blue birds. Using the language of music, the awakening of Spring, which comes on especially violently after the cold, harsh Winter, is depicted in this piece.
Both orchestra and piano are “flying” to reach a climax point. The forces of spring win over the forces of winter in this “war”, marching simply and resolutely in the military march based on the “soul base” theme which is the first theme that sounds after the eight strikes of the bell in the beginning of the first movement. Then the piano solo follows in place of a cadence depicting rapture for enjoyment of life.
In a short prayer-like ending of the first movement we can hear the echoes of the fears experienced in the past, the yearning of the soul (in the piercing intonations of the cellos) on the brink of death.
The second movement belongs to unattainable examples of popular music. The theme in the beginning and in the end of the second movement can hardly be surpassed in its simplicity and powerful depiction of pure youthful love.
In the middle part, Rachmaninov draws musical images of “scowling” nature”. It lightens in a small cadence of the piano where the composer’s soul is coming back to life again and again, like Venus born of the sea foam.
The movement ends with the author’s “soul flight” in the “zenith of rebirth” at the height of the flight, accompanied by the bell tolling.
The finale is filled with joy and humor. The main themes represent the “military agility” of the spring forces. The secondary theme depicts the splendor of the sensual oriental female, her beauty and attractiveness. The music is filled with eroticism and oriental beauty that Rachmaninov depicted so splendidly, himself being a descendant of oriental warriors.
The middle part describes a “cold-blooded battle” of the spring and the “evil forces” (jazz fugue), that take flight from the powerful “spring attack”.
Apotheosis of the finale is based on the oriental theme of sensual female beauty that sounds again.
It is Rachmaninov’s glory of love that conquered death.