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On this day, Rachmaninoff’s birthday, I’d like to put his compositions in the context of the milieu from which he came. It has often been a criticism that his music was far too conservative for a man who lived in the time of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. I’d like to point out, however, that while all three are basically contemporaries, circumstance and world events played as large a part in their musical development as personal predilection for progressive or conservative tendencies.

Rachmaninoff was born in Imperial Russia to an aristocratic family in 1873. He came from a long line (his family can be traced to the 15th century) of amateur and professional musicians and military men. He showed signs of musical ability early and started learning piano at age 4. By the age of 10, he started studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and transferred to the Moscow Conservatory, moving in with his teacher, Nicolai Zverev, at age of 13. At age 19, his first opera, Aleko, was premiered at the Bolshoi to great success — Tchaikovsky praised it — and by the age of 24, when his Symphony №1 was premiered 1897, he had had quite a few successes with his compositions and piano performance. Here is a great performance of all the symphonies by one of the great interpreters of Rachmaninoff, Evgeny Svetlanov.

The premiere of his first symphony was an unmitigated failure. Like so many first performances, it suffered from being under-rehearsed and prepared and the critics were merciless. More telling, however, Rachmaninoff wrote to a friend that he felt, “deeply distressed and heavily depressed by the fact that my Symphony … did not please me at all after its first rehearsal.”

This failed premiere drove Rachmaninoff into a serious depression, resulting in a writer’s block that took many years to overcome and it was not until working with the therapist and hypnotist, Nicolai Dahl, that he was able to complete a large-scale composition. This work, completed in 1901, was his Piano Concerto №2. Dedicated to Dahl, this work was an immediate success, and gave Rachmaninoff the needed confidence to continue writing. Here’s a wonderful performance on YouTube with Evgeny Kissin and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung.

One of my favorite recordings is Sviatoslav Richter’s from 1959 with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Kurt Sanderling.

But, the most revealing recording is Rachmaninoff playing himself, from a fantastic 1929 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski.

I’ll end this with my favorite interpretations of his Symphony №2. He didn’t begin composing it until twelve years (1906) after the premiere of his first symphony. When it was premiered in 1908 it was an immediate success, thank goodness, and further helped Rachmaninoff gain back the confidence to compose with frequency.

Here’s an indispensible video of the great Evgeny Svetlanov conducting the USSR Symphony Orchestra in 1973.

And a wonderfully sounding recording from 1995 of the same forces.

And from Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, a wonderful performance conducted by Tugan Sokhiev.

Finally, here is my Spotify playlist that I share every year for his birthday.