It is hard to believe, but the prospects for the future popularity of Sergei Rachmaninov’s music as expressed by critics of the day were about as on the mark as a renowned weather forecaster in October 1987.
In the late ’70s, I recall reading, with growing anger, an article in the FT, confidently asserting that my young hero, the much lamented Seve Ballesteros, was a flash-in-the-pan talent which wouldn’t stand the test of time.
I don’t understand why people make such predictions. You rarely look clever. I think someone once assured us that television would never catch on.
Rachmaninov’s life, 1874-1943, spanned tumultuous times in world history. He detested the Soviet regime and took his family to Europe and then the USA. Despite the huge success of his 2nd Piano Concerto, probably now the most popular in the entire repertoire, he was plagued by a lifelong low self esteem across all his gifts of composing, conducting, and performing.
As a pianist, few, if indeed any, have come close to his mastery and obsession for accuracy. He had enormous hands which could cover a twelve note spread, an inevitable consequence being the inability of many with smaller paws to play his music at all.
He was a bit of a scowler (I challenge you to find a single decent picture of him with a smile).
He would barely move at the keyboard, not unlike Horowitz, to whom he paid the ultimate compliment that he played his 3rd Piano Concerto better than the composer himself.
Nowadays we associate Rachmaninov with big sweeping tunes, very much in the romantic, nostalgic, vein of Tchaikovsky (one of his outspoken supporters). His 2nd and 3rd piano concertos have been immortalized in different ways in the films ‘Brief Encounter‘ and ‘Shine‘. If he were alive today, I am certain he’d be giving John Williams some stiff competition.
It is a wonder he went on to compose a second symphony after the disastrous first performance of his first, not helped by a conductor who’d let alcohol get the better of him. But the second, first performed – perhaps as a safeguard – by the composer himself, was an instant success and it is the third movement which forms my offering today.
Allow me to make a plea with you. If you don’t have time to listen to this now, save it for another day: if you’ve never heard it, it is some of the best reflective music you could ever wallow in; and if you do know it, you are unlikely to have heard many better renditions. An orchestra is a whole, made up of talented individuals – and the individual talents here are as good as it gets. Switch everything else off, close your eyes and reminisce.