<title>Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 - A Review</title>
<description>Review of Rachmanoniff's first piano concerto</description>
<series order="2">2022 music project</series>
Rachmaninoff's 2nd<glacius:cite>I like
<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oD5pqlDPCHc">Yuja Wang's interpretation</a> best</glacius:cite>
and 3rd<glacius:cite><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcP3UC1fe1w">Arcadi Volodos</a> does
a great ossia cadenza, and <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sd9zkD3t_ME">Yuja Wang</a>
does a great non-ossia cadenza</glacius:cite> piano concertos get all the love, but what about his
first? I've listened to it a few times but either it's not very memorable or
I wasn't paying close enough attention. For my 2nd
<glacius:link series="2022 music project" /> I thought
it would be fun to listen to it more closely. Like it was my school assignment
to do so.
Sometimes these things sound more fun in my head. But now I'm in too deep, so
off we go.
Like most Rachmaninoff and/or late-Romantic pieces, there's a lot of chromatics.
The main theme is pretty rich harmonically, which I've notated below.
<caption>Main theme of the first movement</caption>
Nothing truly crazy, but I thought the modulation progression from F♯m →
G♯7 → C♯m → D♯7 and then moving backward to C#m by
way of G♯7 (instead of the more natural G♯m) was neat. And then using
the G♯ as a pedal tone around the Bm6 to eventually resolve to C#7 was also neat.
It's very satisfying and natural. Kinda reminiscient of the third concerto (or
vice versa, I guess) with a simple main theme with some meandering chromatics and
then eventually resolving to V7 - i.
Another interesting thing I noticed in the first movement was during the cadenza.
In true Rachmaninoff form, there are lots of notes and block chords, but this cadenza
features a lot of modulations. Within some of these modulations are references
to the main theme (as shown above, highlighted in <span style="color: #00ff00">green</span>
<caption>Main theme callback from the cadenza</caption>
However, I don't completely understand the reason for the oddly spelled and seemingly
out of place F7 chord in the last bar. Obviously the D♭ enharmonic finishes
the last note of the first measure of the main theme, but I don't even understand
why Rachmaninoff put an F7 chord under what's clearly an arpeggiated F♯m6
run (ending with the trill on A).
The only thing I could think of is that a few bars later it changes keys to D♭,
so maybe the F7 chord is setting up the (eventual) key change: F7 is the V of
B♭ minor which is the relative minor of D♭... meh, seems a stretch to me.
<caption>Cadenza leading into key change</caption>
Another interesting spelling choice:
<caption>D♯m in the right hand and E♭m in the left</caption>
I assume this is just for readability (it might be an editor's choice, since the
last measure of this example was the first measure after a page turn), but given
the fact that the left hand switches clefs and still ends up on E♭ makes
this choice a little puzzling.
The third movement seems a little bipolar. Starts off hot and spicy, in stark
contrast to the typically slow 2nd movement. Then after a hot-and-spicy
minute, it slows way down following the most jarring key change transition
of all time.
This slow section ends the exact same way the 2nd movement ends, just a half-step
up (E♭ instead of D). Then it's a bunch of frantic and fast-paced, almost
march-like segments until the coda, and it ends with a flourish.
Overall, not a bad movement, but the transition between the slow and fast parts
was too extreme and out of left field. But I'm not a legendary virtuoso composer,
so maybe Rachmaninoff knows better than me.
I did enjoy this brief tremolo that reminded me of the 3rd movement of
Rachmaninoff's 3rd concerto:
<caption>Brief tremolo from the 1st concerto</caption>
<caption>Passage from the 3rd concerto</caption>
It's a good concerto, but it's pretty clear why the other two are so much more
famous. Seems like he got out all of the kinks by the time the 2nd concerto
rolled around, and everything was much more smooth and polished.
If I had to rank the movements, I'd say they go in order from best to worst: 1, 2, 3.
The 1st movement starts and ends strong, and has a fantastic cadenza. The 2nd movement
is moving, slow and atmospheric and sets the mood. The 3rd movement starts strong
but gets weird with tempo changes, key changes and mood changes. Overall they are
all nice to listen to.
To write this article I listened to a
<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6EX3t2Mdnw">a performance</a> by
<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Fedorova">Anna Fedorova</a> and followed
along with the full score. As usual, it made me painfully aware how utterly inept I am at reading
As usual, I used <a href="https://lilypond.org/">Lilypond</a> to transcribe the passages
used in this article. You can download my (very messy) Lilypond file