Following the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in 1897, Rachmaninoff barely composed for three years. He finally sought help from the psychiatrist Nikolai Dahl in 1900, and after months of hypnotherapy he regained his confidence. Rachmaninoff started sketching the Second Piano Concerto that summer in Italy, and by December he had the second and third movements ready for a trial performance. After completing the first movement in 1901, Rachmaninoff dedicated the hard-earned Concerto to his therapist.
Rachmaninoff described this Concerto as “a symphony with a strain of piano solo.” The first movement begins with the piano alone in a humble prelude, but as soon as the strings enter with their long-lined melody, the soloist recedes to a role of accompanist, coloring the lush statement with vivid arpeggios. After some exploratory exchanges, the piano returns to the foreground to introduce a wistful new theme. Lyricism predominates in this elegant first movement, and it persists in the Adagio sostenuto movement that follows. Once again there is an introduction, this time commencing in C minor (the previous movement’s final chord) and progressing to the new key of E major. The piano enters with the movement’s characteristic undulating rhythm, music that has its roots in a Romance that Rachmaninoff composed in 1890 for three daughters in a family of distant relatives. Playing triplets grouped into sets of four, the piano seems to float in its own tempo while the orchestra elaborates a haunting theme.
The Allegro scherzando finale breaks the spell with a playful orchestral lead-in and piano cadenza, again starting with the final chord of the preceding movement and modulating to the movement’s home key. Even in this high-energy movement, a lyrical theme steals the spotlight. Rachmaninoff, it should be noted, was not the only person to profit from the immortal melodies in this Concerto; material from the second movement appears in Eric Carmen’s 1975 song “All by Myself,” while Frank Sinatra had one his earliest hits with his 1945 recording of “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” an adaptation of the finale’s lyrical secondary theme.