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A guide to Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony and its best recordings

Julian Haylock explains how the Russian’s towering Second Symphony emerged from the trauma of the First

Rachmaninov symphony no 2 guide and best recordings

Perfectly proportioned, ingeniously constructed and melodically exultant, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony represents – alongside his Third Piano Concerto – the creative summit of the composer’s recovery period following the critical mauling meted out to his First Symphony a decade before.

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Alexander Glazunov’s insensitive and (apparently) inebriated premiere account of Rachmaninov’s fledgling symphony had inspired one of the most infamous pieces of newspaper criticism from fellow composer César Cui: ‘If there was a conservatory in Hell, and one of its talented pupils was asked to compose a programmatic symphony based on the Seven Plagues of Egypt, if he were to write something resembling Mr Rachmaninov’s symphony, he would surely have arrived at the perfect solution, and would no doubt thoroughly entertain all of Hell’s creatures.’

When did Rachmaninov compose his Second Symphony?

Rachmaninov began suffering psychosomatic pains in his hands and legs and his inspiration virtually dried up. It took three years of support from various members of his extended family and a course of groundbreaking hypnotherapy to get him back on course with his Second Piano Concerto. By the time he completed the first movement of his new symphony during the autumn of 1906, he was in full creative flow and in high demand as composer, pianist and conductor.

It was in order to get away from the hustle and bustle of Moscow life that Rachmaninov took a working holiday in Dresden, where he wrote to his friend Nikita Morozov – whom he’d known since composition classes back in his student days – that the remaining three movements had taken three-and-a-half, two and four weeks respectively. While in Dresden, he heard a performance, directed by the composer, of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome, then only a year old, which appears to have made a most favourable impression ‘except when the music became too discordant!’

How was Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony received?

 Back in Russia, Rachmaninov premiered his new symphony on 26 January 1908 in St Petersburg to great acclaim and was subsequently awarded the Glinka Prize of 1,000 roubles. Following the premiere, composer-critic Yuli Engel reported enthusiastically: ‘Despite his 34 years [Rachmaninov] is one of the most significant figures in the contemporary music world, a worthy successor to Tchaikovsky. After listening with unflagging attention to its four movements, one notes with surprise that the hands of the watch have moved forward 65 minutes. This might be overlong for the general audience, but how fresh, how beautiful it is!’ The work was dedicated to Sergei Taneyev, Rachmaninov’s professor at the Moscow Conservatory, whose adherence to strict procedure had proved of inestimable value. Just seven years later, Taneyev died of pneumonia after catching a chill at Scriabin’s funeral.

Between the wars, the symphony’s gloriously expansive outlines were to prove too much of a good thing for Western audiences, who by then were more used to the snappy, hip-and-happening neo-classical fayre emanating (mostly) from Paris. Accordingly, Rachmaninov put on a brave face and sanctioned several large cuts amounting to some 300 bars. However, shortly before his death, he confessed to the conductor Eugene Ormandy (one of his most devoted champions), ‘You don’t know what cuts do to me. It is like cutting a piece out of my heart.’ 

3 of the best recordings of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony 

London Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO 0851  

In the 21st century, LSO Live has also given us a powerful and much praised account under Valery Gergiev made in 2008. But I think the present recording, taken from a concert given in 2019, is even better. Not only does it feature superior orchestral playing, but Rattle’s wonderfully fluid approach, his magisterial control of rubato and keen sensitivity to all the different colours in this opulently scored work all combine to produce an interpretation that keeps you engaged from the first bar 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, in that sense has a special association with the Staatskapelle. They play it to a standard that’s in line with their standing as one of the world’s special orchestras – silky strings, wonderfully blended woodwind chording, and a brass section to match anyone’s anywhere (the quiet peroration towards the end of the Scherzo movement is one of many such moments).

Pappano conducts with his trademark energy, avoiding excessive juice-extraction of the music’s late-Romantic idiom, and gives the orchestra plenty of time and space to deliver in their classy way. The accompanying ‘documentary’ isn’t really that – it consists mostly of Pappano talking about the music and illustrating it at the piano.

Malcolm Hayes gave this recording the full five stars when he reviewed it in 2020. Read his full review

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Deutsche Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin/Robin Ticciati
Linn Records CKD653

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

Fortunately, Robin Ticciati doesn’t fall into this trap in the slow movement, taken at a beautifully flowing tempo that allows the glorious melodies and the ecstatic climaxes time to unfold. Indeed, Ticciati’s approach sounds more affecting for avoiding any hint of self-indulgence or sentimentality.

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