30 March 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Rachmaninoff: The second piano concerto

Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the last pure late-romantic composers, a stunning virtuoso and altogether one of the great musicians of his time.

His piano works (especially the concertos) are still widely regarded as the “non plus ultra” in technical difficulty and a benchmark for every young pianist. Similarly, their popularity has never decreased but has in fact grown over the last hundred years and even his symphonies are now being performed more often in the concert halls.

Many Austrian-German musicians of Karajan’s generation and even in the following ones disliked Rachmaninoff for his overt sentiment and called his music “kitsch”. Karajan didn’t. He had been very fond of it since his childhood, although in fact he conducted only one single work, the famous 2nd piano concerto. Plans for a recording of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd symphony in the 1960s unfortunately failed. Karajan performed the concerto 9 times up to 1953 with pianists like Rolf Langnese, Ferry Gebhardt, Friedrich Wührer and the great Walter Gieseking. His only studio recording (plus film) was another project with his friend Alexis Weissenberg in 1972/73. Weissenberg’s recording of the Rachmaninoff preludes in 1971 was one of Karajan’s favorite discs in his later years.

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