The chamber opera The Miserly Knight (to the text of one of Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin’s Little Tragedies, 1905) was first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre on 11 January 1906 under the baton of the composer. Like Rachmaninoff’s two other operas, The Miserly Knight provoked great interest among the public and in music circles, but at the same time there were many arguments and disagreements in appraising it. In selecting the genre of so-called recitative opera to an original text by Pushkin (without arias, developed ensembles, choruses and other elements of traditional opera), the composer was continuing the line of Alexander Sergeyevich Dargomyzhsky’s The Stone Guest. Now it is difficult to agree with the opera’s critics who believed that Rachmaninoff had only succeeded with the instrumental part and that the orchestra eclipsed the vocal roles. Undeniably, the symphonic plan is highly developed in The Miserly Knight, and it is in the orchestral role that the all-round musical effect unfolds, parallel to the development of the plot. But it is in the vocal roles that not only the sense but also the expressiveness of Pushkin’s text unfolds and it is on the soloists, by and large, that opera audiences’ attention is focussed. Here one can speak of the composer’s many successes and discoveries. One clear example is the second scene of the opera (the Baron’s mono-scene). Throughout the entire scene, Rachmaninoff brilliantly maintains the audience’s interest, uncovering the sharply contrasting features of this character, the combination of gloomy magnificence (it is not by chance that here there are both textual and musical references to the image of Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov) and the maniacal passion for gold and riches that almost kills off all human emotions (even those of a father for his son).
The complexity of the artistic task the composer set himself also lies in the fact that Rachmaninoff was a lyricist, while there is no room in Pushkin’s tragedy for this, in the original source there are no distinctly positive characters, there is nothing lofty and nothing ideal. Albert, the Jewish moneylender, the Baron (who is also a money-lender!) and the Duke, apparently standing on the side lines – all of them are present in the gloomy world of Pushkin’s play, which became even more expressive thanks to Rachmaninoff’s music. The end of the third scene (and the whole opera), which concludes with the Baron’s death, does not bring a “brightening-up”, which provides yet a further justification to look at Rachmaninoff’s opera not just in the context of 19th century Russian classical opera traditions, but also in terms of 20th century opera aesthetics.
By the time of Symphony No. 2 Sergei Rachmaninoff was widely known as a pianist and a composer. Following the negative critical reaction to his Symphony No. 1, it had been twelve years since he could turn his thoughts to the symphonic genre. He did not succeed in writing Symphony No. 2 until 1906–1907 and dedicated the composition to his teacher, Sergei Taneyev. In 1908 one of the anonymous reviewers of Russian Music Newspaper wrote about the first performance: “Rachmaninoff conducted his new symphony with such mastership and composure as might be shown by an artist Kapellmeister. It was a real treat for every lover of Russian music.” The symphony is impressive both in craftsmanship and in unity of the whole. Though the composer failed to publish its contents, its musical intonations speak for themselves. The motto theme that opens the symphony is based on tunes of the old Russian chant. The second movement represents a Russian winter with troika bells. Boris Asafyev, a musicologist, compares the fancy melody from the third movement with the tortuous course of a Russian steppe river. The exultant finale sums up the basic themes of the preceding movements, showing them at new angles.