Suite No. 2 in C minor, op. 17
December 19, 2017: Alessio Bax, piano; Lucille Chung, piano
Following the disastrous failure of his First Symphony in 1897 Rachmaninoff sank into such a deep depression that he could not compose, yet he knew he must produce another piano concerto for an upcoming engagement. Relatives persuaded him to see Dr. Nicolai Dahl, who had been specializing for some years in a method that involved his patients learning a kind of self-hypnosis (which in the early 1930s became known as the Coué method). Rachmaninoff described his treatment and emergence from his creative slump with enough material not only for the concerto but a two-piano suite:
I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day, while I lay half asleep in an armchair in Dahl’s study. “You will begin to write your concerto. . . . You will work with great facility. . . . The concerto will be of excellent quality. . . .” It was always the same, without interruption.
Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me. Already at the beginning of the summer I began to compose. The material grew in bulk, and new musical ideas began to stir in me—far more than I needed for my concerto. By the autumn I had finished two movements of the concerto: the Andante [his generic term for any slow movement, in this case the Adagio sostenuto] and the finale—and a sketch of a suite for two pianos.
Rachmaninoff saw Dr. Dahl daily from January to April 1900. Whether the method worked, or whether he came out of his depression by his extended conversations with Dahl, who was also an amateur musician, Rachmaninoff was soon able to complete both the Second Piano Concerto and the Suite.
He sent three of the four movements of the Suite to his friend, pianist and teacher Alexander Goldenweiser, on February 17, 1901. By April 23, the complete work was ready for the two to play through at Goldenweiser’s apartment. Dedicated to Goldenweiser, the Suite was published that October as Opus 17—before the Second Piano Concerto, op. 18, which accounts for the seeming reverse in the order of the opus numbers. In November the composer and his cousin Alexander Siloti gave the first public performance in Moscow.
The Suite begins with a lively march, which reaches a grand climax before fading away in the distance. In the lovely waltz Rachmaninoff plays with the expected 3/4 meter, sometimes stretching his themes into what sounds like 6/4, or two-measure instead of one-measure units. At the beginning of the second of two calmer sections, Rachmaninoff makes a brief reference to the Dies irae theme (four notes only) from the Catholic Mass for the Dead, which would play a significant role in a number of his later works.
Rachmaninoff fashioned the Romance around one of his ravishing melodies, which he embroiders ingeniously and builds to a fortissimo climax. In his comprehensive study of Rachmaninoff, Barrie Martyn notes that just before the final appearance of the theme, the composer used material from his six-hand Romance, written for in 1891 for three sisters. According to a footnote in the score, Rachmaninoff based the final Tarantella on an Italian folk song, but the tune has yet to be identified. In any case, the fast, whirling dance makes a dazzling conclusion.
© Jane Vial Jaffe