My relationship with the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto

By Michael Lewin
Posted June 2018

Growing up, I was something of a snob about Rachmaninoff. All those beautiful melodies- it didn’t seem sufficiently serious. I preferred to play music which I considered better than it could ever be performed, to paraphrase Schnabel. When I arrived at Juilliard, I immediately learned both Brahms Concertos, not Rachmaninoff, like many of my peers. When conductors asked me to play the Rachmaninoff 2nd, I was somehow always able to convince them to do something else, like the Tchaikovsky. I successfully managed to avoid learning what is perhaps the world’s most popular and beloved Piano Concerto.

However, the season after I won the American Pianists Association Award, I had to perform nine different concertos, five of which were brand new. I was totally overwhelmed- a challenging welcome to professional realities. This in addition to recitals, chamber music, etc. And of course that was the moment when I finally encountered a conductor who said, "Sorry, Rachmaninoff 2nd or I’ll just get another pianist." The time had come. It was the very last concert of a brutal year. I had been holding on for dear life with all those concertos, and somehow, although the others had gone well, I just wasn’t quite prepared for this last concert. I spent two days and nights backstage in York, Pennsylvania on a Yamaha upright, practicing nonstop, right until I went on stage. It still wasn’t fully ready. I had to use the score, which I had never done before, and I was ashamed to play such a famous piece with the music, not even properly memorized.

Over the next few years, I played it four more times. There was always a problem- once I had hurt my hand and had plaster casts on two fingers, another time I worked with a conductor who insisted that I play absolutely metronomically… I felt bad karma. By then I had about 30 concertos in my repertoire, so there were many other options. I just stopped playing it.

But our tastes evolve, and I have come to absolutely adore Rachmaninoff. All of it. The songs, symphonies, choral works, the piano music. When I am pulling out cd’s for car listening, Rachmaninoff often gets the call. I have now taught all the piano music, have developed deep feelings for it, and am no longer snobbish about its great audience appeal. It no longer seems overly sentimental, but deeply heartfelt and magnificently constructed.

So when I was recently asked to play it twice next year, I was thrilled.

I just started relearning it this week. It feels so wonderful under my hands. Such a perfect piano piece. My ratty old score is filled with interpretative comments to myself, notes circled in red, and lots of fingerings. A total mess. Worst of all were the fingerings- horrible! I feel eternally sorry that I have lent this score to so many students, and said, "oh, just copy my fingerings." I humbly apologize to every one of them!

I ditched that score and now I’m playing from the original oversize Russian edition. I’m grateful for the chance to finally make amends. I can hardly wait to perform it soon, and hopefully many more times in the future.