Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 for piano and orchestra captivated the audience right at its first performance in 1901. An unusual introduction – powerful resonant piano chords, evoking the bell tolling, heralded the appearance of a rare and original piece, “a virtuoso poem about the Motherland” – as it was described later. For about three years the composer had suffered from a severe depression and refused to compose music. However, this crisis period turned into the time of accumulation of colossal creative power and served as a kind of a catalyst for the revision of the past creative goals. In the Second Concerto Rachmaninoff appears as a mature master with a fresco manner of writing, having a deep insight into the primal essence of traditional national forms of music: bell ringing, austere plain chants, long, melodious peasants’ songs remained the staple of his works for many years. All these features can be found in Rachmaninoff’s C-minor concerto, which along with Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1, has become not only the absolute leader in terms of frequency of its performance, but also one of the symbols of Russian musical art.
Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934), which he created in emigration, and which brought him incredible fame, was, in essence, a set of romantic variations on a theme of Paganini’s Cappricсio No. 24, whose striking and catchy melody had already attracted attention of many composers from Liszt to Lutoslavsky. Dramaturgically, all variations can be divided into three large distinguished sections, following the general logic of a standard concerto. The first section (variations 1-10) introduces and starts the development of the main theme, counterposed by a trademark of Rachmaninov's major compositions the Dies Irae theme (A Day of Wrath), a medieval catholic piece, serving as an embodiment of evil. This is followed by what the composer called “a transition into a love aria” (variations 11-17), culminating in a captivating nocturne, which has become a real hit. In the dashing finale the evil motives are enhanced and lead up to the moments of the highest dramatic tension. However, what the result of this struggle in Rachmaninoff’s late masterpiece is, each listener will have to decide for himself.
The Symphonic Dances (1940) was Rachmaninoff’s last major work, composed once he had emigrated to America and three years after his Third Symphony. Initially the work had a somewhat different title – Fantastic Dances – and its three sections were entitled Noon, Twilight and Midnight. In the final version Rachmaninoff changed the titles and abandoned any programme names.
There is much that points to the fact that Symphonic Dances was the composer’s final work. Rachmaninoff was as if looking back, summing up the results of his own creative life. At the close of the first section (set to bell chimes) one can hear the there of the first section of the first movement of the First Symphony which had been defamed at the premiere but which the composer later would not allow to be performed. In the third section one can hear the theme Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”, a medieval Catholic chorale about the Day of Judgement), which can be found in many of Rachmaninoff’s works as an idée fixe and which reaches its climax here. And at the very end the violas and the snare drum reach the culmination with the slightly modified theme of Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost from Blessed Art Thou, O Lord, the ninth part of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, composed in 1915. From the title it follows that there could be a ballet version of the work. In actual fact, Rachmaninoff corresponded with the choreographer Michel Fokine, discussing the possibility of creating a stage version of his final work. Fokine’s death in 1942, however, prevented the idea from ever coming to fruition.