Dwelling on the past: Piano Concerto No. 2

The challenge for composers when writing the final movement of a concerto is to wrap up the piece by bringing back themes from previous movements, introducing something new, showing off the soloist’s technical ability, and by leaving the listener with a distinct message. It could be one of disillusionment, satisfaction, joy, even excitement. Often, I imagine the composer thinking, Ok, I’ve said all I want to say. Now for a bit of fun.

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The final movement of a symphony or concerto is often the most difficult for listeners when it comes to finding meaning. There is no easy answer to the question: “what is the composer saying here?” Final movements are often the least cohesive and can jump around between different sentiments. For example, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Movement 3 begins with an almost comic interlude. This, after ending an incredibly delicate, emotional second movement, seems to snap us out of a trance and bring us back down to earth where time is ticking again. In the first half of the clip below the feeling is light and comical, but it quickly morphs into anxiety. And time seems to be ticking faster.

While listening to this movement, I imagine that I have just awaken from the most sweet dream (movement 2) and now I must act quickly to make that dream a reality, or it will be lost forever. Much of this movement feels frantic. Of course, Rachmaninov takes this opportunity to write an insane run in the left hand that is mind-blowing to me still, after dozens of hearings. It is hard to believe that just ten fingers are producing that many notes.

1zhY8The new theme that is introduced is reminiscent of the slower, sweeter theme of the second movement. There is something about the way this melody sounds that reminds me of a romanticized Middle East, like in the movies. Like a bright, wide-open landscape with golden sand shimmering in the sun. Lawrence of Arabia, anyone?

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The remaining clips I’ll share convey the sense of longing that Rachmaninov comes back to again and again. It is the near obsession, the intense longing for something or someone who may only exist in dreaming. It is the longing for a happier, better reality than the one we currently find ourselves in. It grows more intense as the movement progresses. First we find it in the piano, then with greater intensity and dissonance with the full orchestra.

Sometimes I think Rachmaninov never really gets past the second movement in this concerto. It seems to be the climax of the concerto, and because it is such a masterpiece, it seems that anything he could have written after would exist in the shadow of it. Though this is my least favorite of the three movements, it is still worth a listen because of the raw virtuosity of the pianist and the closure that finally does come at the end.

Up next: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It’ll be a wild ride.

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Longing: Rachmaninov

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) is one of my favorite composers because of the intriguing tonality, unique instrument combinations (scoring), and mostly because of the passionate emotion that is packed into every piece. His piano concertos are especially worth exploring because of their accessibility to audiences and the incredible virtuosity in the piano parts. Because Rachmaninov had such incredibly large hands, he was well suited to the piano and produced some of the most well-known music in piano repertoire.

To continue with my exploration of emotion in Classical music, today’s clips come from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Mvt 2: Adagio Sostenuto. The title of this movement simply means slow, smooth, and sustained. Not very descriptive. But the music is incredibly descriptive of one emotion in particular: longing. Longing for deep satisfaction. For intimate love. To know and to be known deeply. To be near a loved one and see their smile, even if for a moment. The kind of longing that takes away breath and causes deep sighing. When I listen to this music, I feel a longing for love so intense that it makes my heart hurt. And yet it is worth listening to every minute because of how beautiful and inspiring it is.

Ending scene from the movie “Love Actually”

The simple melody first appears in the clarinet, which produces a sweet, innocent tone quality that could soften even the most callous listener. The quiet, warmth of the strings playing major chords in the background and the piano accompanying the clarinet brings about a supported, safe feeling.

But as they say, “love hurts.” There are few pieces that characterize romantic love that do not also display a dissonant longing, hurting, or yearning for something that once was that may never be again. Or a longing for something that can never be, except fantasy. This next clip captures this with great accuracy. The key switches from major to minor as Rachmaninov alters the melody to sound sad. It sounds sad because the middle note in the 3-note chord is one half-step lower and because the melody goes down instead of staying up. It speaks to how being in love can be disappointing when there is distance, hurt feelings, or because it just doesn’t satisfy the feeling of deep longing.

Rachmaninov then takes us on a whole emotional journey (or some might call it a roller coaster) only to return to the original melody, much stronger and more certain than before. This clip starts with the last note of the melody in the strings, but instead of ending the movement, the melody turns around and goes up. The feeling here is a flower blossoming in the sun, opening to reveal its radiance. To me it feels like one big, orchestral embrace.  It’s like the music holds me, grips me, and refuses to let go. It feels like divine love.

You’ll have to excuse my extreme sentimentality in this post. To some, this music is too romantic and sentimental, like overly-rich fudge. It is easy to write off Classical music of this kind because cynicism is so prevalent. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” But my hope is that you’ll let your guard down and listen to the whole concerto (32:30) and allow yourself to be swept away by the music. I hope it will leave you feeling loved and satisfied, and perhaps longing for more the way it does for me.

This post is dedicated to my wife who is my encouragement, my inspiration, and whose love I long for more than ever after six years of marriage. I love you, Dawn! This piece reminds me so much of you.