Romantic music doesn’t come any more romantic than Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. Composed in 1895, it forms the second half of tonight’s concert. We are very lucky, in several ways, to have this great symphony. Fifteen years earlier, Rachmaninov’s reputation, and his health, had been ruined by the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony. The conductor had been entirely out of sympathy with the music, and drunk. (This will not be a problem this evening.) Only rest, and a course of early hypnotherapy, helped him to regain his compositional confidence, and he produced his great Second Piano Concerto in 1901 before braving the rigours of another symphony. Intense, lyrical, dramatic and emotional, there is an epic grandeur to this long work which almost overwhelms the listener. The sweeping melodies – what Rachmaninov called his ‘big tunes’ – come thick and fast.
And yet the free lyricism never quite runs out of control, for the whole work is firmly grounded in a strict application of the disciplines of counterpoint and polyphony – where several voices interweave to produce one flow of sound – evolved over several centuries, and traditional symphonic form, where tiny seeds of thematic material grow and are developed into structures that unify the movements of the symphony. In the case of this symphony, we can also clearly hear foundations taken from another tradition, namely the music of the Russian Orthodox liturgy.
These two sources – small germs of melody, and deep, sonorous Russian church chant – are there right at the very beginning, and the shapes, harmonic progressions and rhythmic patterns of the symphony’s many melodies can all be traced back to it. The symphony opens with a slow broad introduction on cellos and basses, intoning the choral theme, while violas, bass clarinet and cor-anglais evoke a dark atmosphere which grows and then subsides, before a pensive moment on cor-anglais and an exclamation from the violins usher in the first movement proper. This builds into a sweeping development built largely on the beautiful, urgent first flight of the violins. The main theme of this faster section comes directly from the initial ‘motto’ theme, and is followed by another one, closely related to it, which serves to calm the music briefly before the movement comes to a stormy close.
The scherzo second movement is full of stress and nervous energy, right from the rollicking opening theme for horns over a galloping accompaniment. The tension breaks with the arrival of a gorgeous second theme, one of Rachmaninov’s great lyric impulses. The enervated first theme returns in a repeat, and then the central section of the movement is announced by a crash, followed by an almost violent fugue. A straightforward repeat of the scherzo follows, the motto-theme – which also has echoes of the Dies Irae from Roman Catholic liturgy which Rachmaninov used in many of this works – sounding lugubriously in the low brass before the movement peters out in silence.
The slow third movement is surely the most overtly romantic music in all Rachmaninov’s work. The lingering clarinet melody that begins it is the core of the whole symphony, and is taken up by the violins, turning into a very long tune indeed which, though it takes many turnings, never repeats itself. The quiet and deceptively simple-sounding accompaniment is actually highly intricate, with the strings divided in places into 16 different parts, covering all the harmonic bases as it were, allowing the beauty of the theme to sing out. There follows a development, with woodwinds prominent, but the main melody soon returns, mainly on violins, and the movement subsides into complete peace at its close.
The Finale, in contrast, explodes upon the listener with a festive burst of confident affirmation, celebration almost. Four bars of pounding rhythm introduce a swaggering, march-like principal theme, and even after the initial energy subsides, galloping triplet-figures continue to drive the music vigorously forward. Cymbals and a fanfare announce the gloriously-happy second subject, another of Rachmaninov’s unforgettable ‘big tunes’ – extending for an amazing 114 bars – which he slowly winds down before pausing to reconsider the slow tune from the slow movement. The following development section climaxes in some demanding passagework of falling scales, descending at different speeds and from different starting points. The return of earlier material, especially a maestoso restatement of the second subject, is crowned by a last appearance of the motto-theme in the entire brass section, and a sparkling coda brings the symphony to its buoyant conclusion with a great flourish.