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Symphony No.2 in E Minor Op.27

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

Symphony No.2 in E Minor Op.27

All three Rachmaninov symphonies open with pregnant melodic figures from which so much of the ensuing musical argument grows. In the case of the Second the opening idea of its Largo harks back to the youthful Symphony movement in D minor (1891), though its profile is more strongly etched, more sharply characterised. A four-note figure on cellos and double-basses, which has something of the character of a Russian Orthodox Chant, is answered by a plangent woodwind cry over which the violins spin a songful, melancholy line. From these simple melodic strands the substance not only of the Largo introduction but the ensuing Allegro moderato is generated. The violin melody forms the most of the thematic material of the movement and the opening idea forms the basis of the first group, and the wind chords prompt the contrasting G major second. The movement is long-breathed, marvellously proportioned and paced, the musical argument unfolding with keen dramatic flair. None of the four movements is formally innovative, but never less than masterly. One would expect as much from a pupil of Taneyev, to whom the symphony is dedicated.

After the ambitious first movement there is an exhilarating scherzo (Allegro molto) whose buoyant, infectious high spirits carry all before it. The dancing figure on the strings takes its course but eventually its energy subsides and gives way to a radiant, generous C major idea in octaves on first and second violins, one of those long, seamless outpourings one encounters in his piano music. The vigorous opening returns and again its exuberance gradually prepares for a trio. But instead of a lyrical theme there is a robust, sinuous idea which is tossed between strings and wind and which eventually returns us to the vehemence of the scherzo. The Adagio is the longest and most overtly romantic of his symphonic slow movements, and its world of feeling comes close to the love duet in his opera, Francesca da Rimini (1905). It is a lyrical outpouring, a love poem almost, that radiates a poignant happiness. The finale (Allegro vivace) takes up where the scherzo left off: the mood is joyous and festive. Ideas from the scherzo and the slow movement appear in its course. The second group is an ecstatic lyrical figure which soars far above the stave: the accompaniment here with its triplet chords is one of the few instances in the work's course that suggests residual pianistic habits of mind. The development includes an extraordinarily imaginative passage beginning with descending scales which grow into a typical Rachmaninov carillon. It is, as Patrick Piggott put it, "as if a thousand bell-towers were ringing out a clamorous celebration." Bells as well as the Dies irae, to which allusion is made in the scherzo, were constant motifs in his musical thinking.

In one of the 'Windflower' letters Elgar speaks of having 'written out his soul' in his Second Symphony and the Violin Concerto: all his vitality seemed to be in them, he said. And, although there were many great works to come, one might well say the same of Rachmaninov and his Second Symphony. All his vitality and soul is here.

1994 Phillips Classics Productions

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