Following the unruly 1897 premiere of his Symphony No. 1 under a reportedly inebriated Alexander Glazunov, Rachmaninov suffered psychosomatic pains and was creatively near-impotent for three years.
He turned to Moscow neurologist Dr Nikolai Dahl, an expert in hypnosis, who got him composing again – ‘You will begin to write your concerto… the concerto will be of excellent quality’, were the mantras that he heard ringing in his ears.
Within weeks, the 27-year-old was brimming with ideas and in a flood of inspiration composed his melodically radiant Piano Concerto No. 2.
Although he had been a musical Romantic, it was only now that Rachmaninov began composing those long, arching tunes, supported by skin-tingling suspended harmonies, which were to become such a trademark.
The best recording of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2
From the insinuating suggestion of tolling bells that opens this popular Concerto, and the longbreathed melody that sounds like some ancient chant unspiralling, Sviatoslav Richter is at his most incandescent.
This is music in which the piano reigns supreme, and Richter’s pyrotechnical majesty and bravado is everywhere, often giving way to moments of tenderness that are no less hypnotic.
Richter uncovers a brooding melancholy that imparts a Russian accent to even the most simple of gestures. As the climax to the opening movement’s development section spills over into the recapitulation, Richter thunders out his octaves as though the weight of the world was bearing down.
This makes the tenderness of the second subject feel all the more frail and uncertain. The exquisitely sounded slow movement also achieves a noble simplicity by avoiding self-conscious phrasal inflections and dynamic micro-shadings.
Everywhere Richter refuses to take the easy way out, turning Romantic rhetoric on its head with a series of semantic double-takes that draws the music far away from the stiff upper lip romance of Brief Encounter.
Conductor Stanislav Wislocki keeps his Polish players right on the edge of their seats and the re-mastered recording has never sounded better.
Three more great recordings of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2
Sergey Rachmaninov (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (1929)
‘Fingers of steel and a heart of gold’ was how pianist and composer Josef Hofmann described Rachmaninov, and listening to this 80-year-old classic you can hear just why.
Not that there is anything remotely ‘steely’ about Rachmaninov’s soundworld, which retains its pearl-like luminescence at all times. It’s more a question of remarkable finger strength and independence allowing the composer to create washes of tone colour that cascade over the listener like musical droplets.
Never one to wear his heart or virtuosity on his sleeve, Rachmaninov brings a sleight-of-hand deftness and tantalising restraint to a score that in less subtle and supple hands is often pulverised into submission. Stokowski and his ‘fabulous’ Philadelphians follow him every inch of the way.
John Ogdon (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/John Pritchard (1962)
EMI 392 7472
For a poetic vision of exquisite sensibility and compelling emotional narrative, John Ogdon has no peers.
He pulls his listeners into a world of intimate correspondences, compelling us onwards with an unassuming naturalness that makes the urgent dramatic signposting of many recordings feel almost caricaturesque by comparison.
Ogdon’s left hand ripples and cascades where others merely pummel, gently honing in on harmonic asides and rhythmic detail with sublime acuity.
His playing of the Adagio sostenuto slow movement possesses a hushed intensity and melting loveliness unsurpassed on disc, while his sensitivity to the music’s conversational interplay is a joy to behold as he weaves magically in and out of the orchestral textures.
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn (1971)
Decca 444 8392
Of the countless versions which adopt a high emotional and physical impact strategy, Ashkenazy’s second recording with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, which we named one of the best orchestras in the world, at the height of their combined powers has withstood the test of time, despite the slightly opaque sound picture.
The Rachmaninov dream team of the 1970s play this much-hackneyed score with a freshness, moving sincerity and exhilarating emotional power that galvanises the attention from start to finish.
More than any other version, Ashkenazy and Previn exhilarate in the music’s expressive propulsiveness and energy, so that the final grand statement of one of Rachmaninov’s most indelible melodies arrives like an overwhelming affirmation of the composer’s rediscovery of his creative impulse.
And one to avoid
Alexis Weissenberg (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan (1972)
Warner Classics 5857052
On paper the early 1970s teaming of Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic at their most opulent with the Russian keyboard lion Alexis Weissenberg should have sent sparks flying.
However, in the event it turned out to be a (filmed) titanic struggle, with Karajan rolling out a luxuriant red musical carpet for Weissenberg, who makes several desperate attempts to be letoff the leash along the way, but is brought to heel by the Austrian’s indomitable presence.
Find out more about Rachmaninov and his works here
Image: Getty Images
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.