CBSO – Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, Symphony Hall, 13th April 2023, 4**** Reviewers – David Gray & Paul Gray

Brahms – Academic Festival Overture * Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No.2 * Brahms – Serenade No. 1

There is no doubt that Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto is a guaranteed crowd-puller – and rightly so; it is a magnificent work. And in this performance by Uzbeki pianist Behzod Abduraimov it was given a rapturous performance. This young man – he is only 33 – cast a spell over both audience and the players of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO). For this reason, I have chosen to concentrate mostly on the Concerto in this current Review.

Abduraimov – in masterly cahoots with truly superb conductor, François Leleux – gave us a wholly fresh and new reading of this evergreen work which, in many ways, probably saved Rachmaninoff’s sanity, if not his very life itself. Let’s look a bit more closely at this.

The Concerto was written in 1901, after the composer had suffered years of depression and mostly fruitless creativity. The depression lasted around three years and may well have been brought about by the fairly disastrous premiere of his First Symphony (1897). The audience were bewildered by the work; fellow composer & critic César Cui, suggested that the symphony was fit only to “delight the inhabitants of Hell”; and, in describing Rachmaninoff, fellow (& very) young composer, Igor Stravinsky referred to him as a “six-and-a-half-foot scowl.” (Rachmaninoff is pictured, above).

It probably didn’t help that the premiere was conducted by a visibly drunk conductor, the composer Alexander Glazunov! Indeed, Rachmaninoff later wrote of himself sitting curled up on the stairs behind the disastrous premiere, where he: “sometimes stuck my fingers in my ears to prevent myself from hearing my own music, the discords of which absolutely tortured me. No sooner had the last chords died away than I fled, horrified into the street.”

It is highly likely that Rachmaninoff was bipolar. Fellow sufferer, and psychiatric specialist in bipolar affective disorder, Kay Redfield Jamison, talks much about this in her seminal book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, where she explores the relationship between bipolar disorder and artistic creativity. If you haven’t read the book, I can highly recommend it re

Rachmaninoff described his experience of the illness as a “paralysing apathy”. Eventually he was persuaded to see Dr Nikolai Dahl, a musician himself and a specialist in hypnosis. Dahl’s skills were based on the practice of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) a musician and friend of the Mozart family.

In hypnotising his patients Mesmer used direct, positive thinking and reinforcement; what the more “new age”, populist self-help guru, Louise Hay, describes as “Positive Affirmations”. To this end Dahl asked Rachmaninoff to keep repeating phrases such as: “You will begin to write a concerto. You will work with great facility. The concerto will be of excellent quality.” And, my word, what a work of the greatest “facility” and “excellent quality” the Second Piano Concerto is.

Reflecting on this the composer said: “although it may seem incredible, this cure helped me. At the beginning of the summer, I began to compose… new musical ideas began to stir with me – far more than I needed for my concerto.”

This, together with his finally being able to marry his first cousin (technically quite illegal in the Russia of the time!) teased Rachmaninoff out of the depths of despair, and he was able to create what must surely be one of the most beautiful and sublime pieces of music ever composed.

Indeed, the sound-world of the Second Piano Concerto: its construction, form, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and textural invention – is quite simply extraordinary. As pianist Katya Apekisheva comments: “for me, this concerto is full of hope. It seems like his creativity was reborn with this piece… it’s just so full of colour.”

If you want to follow this up further, treat yourself to an excellent, current programme on BBC Radio 3, hosted by Georgia Mann, who took herself off to Vienna to try out some of what Rachmaninoff experienced in his (“Mesmeric”) sessions of hypnosis and positive reinforcement with Dr. Dahl. Of her experience, Georgia comments on the Concerto, saying: “in all its tender climactic magnificence, it’s the ultimate expression of a composer who had learned to love again, maybe not just to love his new wife, but also just maybe himself.” Here’s a link to the radio programme in question:

Now, I have very much concentrated on the Concerto in this Review. SO: to the other works………

The concert kicked off with Brahms’s delightful Academic Festival Overture – perhaps the very antithesis of what Brahms would probably have judged ridiculously indulgent and over-romantic in the Rachmaninoff! The Overture is one of Brahms’s relatively late works, and it is, as it says on the tin, Academic in all kinds of ways. A pleasing curtain-raiser.

The second half of the concert consisted of an early work by Brahms, his Serenade No.1. This seemingly endless work started life as a chamber nonet for strings and woodwind. Brahms then orchestrated it for chamber orchestra, and then full orchestra; thinking perhaps it was a bit of a proto symphony. However, one cannot but feel that this, perfectly charming work, still sounds like a nonet, and it is not the composer’s finest work.

The CBSO played the Serenade well-enough, but, given the awesome, crowd-pulling programming (and amazing performance) of the Rachmaninoff, one has to ask if the choice of the Brahms was a bit of an error? Using the same forces, maybe the choice of a smaller-scale symphony, say by Bruckner, Nielsen, Sibelius, Prokofiev or Tchaikovsky, might have been a better choice of work for the second half? Sadly, the second half felt a bit dull. Good programming is everything.

Francois Leleux – Conductor * Behzod Abduraimov – Piano * The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO)

ReviewsGate Copyright Protection