Rachmaninov for beginners

Rachmaninov is a composer that I've tried to listen to on a few occasions but never been able to get into. I have this nagging feeling that I might not have started out with the right piece, but then again, it's also possible that his music is just not my cup of tea.

This morning while watching Sesame street with my daughter they featured a Chinese born pianist, whose name I think was something like Lang Lang or Ling Ling, and he played a beautiful piece of Rachmaninov music.

So now I'm thinking I should give it another try. I love piano music, and I prefer orchestral to chamber or solo (so think Piano concertos). I also like my classical music romantic .. Brahms, Schumann, some Beethoven, some Dvorak, some Mozart (Piano conc. no 20 in particular). I don't like overt displays of virtuosity ... the music comes first.

Are there Rachmaninov experts out there who could offer a suggestion for an introductory piece ?

Many thanks

Rachmaninov was probably the last of the great romantic composers. His piano pieces are extremely virtuosic, but are extremely melodic and listenable. I would start you with his Rhapsodies on a Theme of Paganini, then his Second and Third Piano Concertos. My favorite pianist for Rachmaninov has always been Ashkenazy, and he has fine recordings on the Decca label from both his early and later years, although Martha Argerich's Third Concerto on Philips was a great live performance and should not be missed if you can get it. For the second there is an old Richter recording on DG, released as a DG Original, that is as idiosyncratic as they come when it comes to tempos but is still one of my favorites. And Lang Lang has fine recent recordings on Telarc of the Second and Third Concertos.
You would also do well to try the Symphonic Dances (the marvelous Reference Recordings disc is a great choice, but there are several others that are worth getting). In addition, the Second Symphony is terrific - many great recordings of that work, including Previn (both Telarc and EMI), Termirkanov, Ormandy (RCA, but only in Japan now). One should not be without Horowitz in this music, especially the Third Concerto. The lousy sounding one with Barbirolli on APR is electrifying.
Would also add that Symphonies 1 and 3 with Janssons are excellent, and the new Hough complete piano concertos on Hyperion is superb, if you are looking for a complete set.

It's funny you mention Mozart’s piano concerto 20. That's probably my favorite classical song of all time. I just connect with that peice more than any other. Even though Mozart had the talent to show off, he never did. He never seemed to add anything that wasn't necessary.

Anyway, I would give Rach's piano concerto #2 a try if you haven't already. I believe he goes a little overboard in virtuosity, but it is still musical. Just pick a time when you can listen to one movement and follow it all the way through, if you space out in the middle of the movement then forget it, it won't make any sense.

Hope this helps.

I have four copies of Piano Concerto #2, and 2 of #3. I know Lang Lang has performed both of these pieces, so you could be referring to either one (perhaps Lang Lang has performed other Rachmaninov as well).

I'd say #2 is slightly more engaging and less challenging to listen to than #3, so you may want to give that a try. Of course, reasonable minds may differ on my assessment.

It's all available on SACD as well, should that be a desirable option for you.
It's not orchestral or instrumental music, but my favorite Rachmaninov is his Vespers. It is beautiful and accessible. I own the version on Telarc but versions on other labels with Russian choruses have received outstanding reviews, too. If you ever have the chance to hear it live, I hope you take the opportunity.

Jim Crane
Others have recommended Rach's Piano Concerto 2 & 3, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Pagnini. These and his Symphony # 2 are great starting points. I would also recommend his Symphonic Dances, much more energized than any of the above, more dramatic if you will. For piano music I would also recommend the Suites for 2 pianos with Previn and Ashkenazy and his Preludes by Hayroudinoff on Chandos.

IMHO, Ashkenazy rules Rachmaninov - all of his works are now on budget disc's and are excellent performances and recordings. His performances are a bit more crisp, more drive, drama, more Russian if you will, than others. The slow overly soupy sounds made by many conductors is initially engaging, but for me at least, over the long haul grows tiring on repeated listening. Seek out the Ashkenazy/Previn recordings on Decca, for the Rhapsody, PC's and Symphonies by Ashkenazy (but Previns are a real alternative choice is you like something more romantic).

As an alternative, for just one piece to start you off, in excellent sound and at a budget price, I would highly recommend with the Rhapsody on a Theme of Pagnini by Rubenstein with Reiner and the CSO on RCA. The CD also contains Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain. This is a winner!


What is not mentioned above is that Rachmaninoff was not only a great composer but made is living for the most part as a concert performer, perhaps the last great pianist/composer. His hands were massive, said to equal Liszt's, which is why it is the rare player who can play either with ease, they wrote for their hands.
For lushness there is little that compares with his Rhapsody on a Theme by Paginini, especially by Van Cliburn, I would second the Vespers by the Robert SHaw Singers, I would add his cello sonotas by Steven Isserliss, also the piano concertos by Askenazy, Rubinstien and late Agerich, his orchestral suites are also quite nice.
Hearing Rachmaninoff play his own works or Liszt is amazing his speed, acuracy and timing are different than what we are now used to but their compelling sound is worth listening to
Thanks all.

this CD looks like just the ticket, and at $8.00 will not break the bank.


(Another shameless plug for archivmusic, with which I have no affiliation other than being a fan).
I'll chime in my vote for the piano concerto's 2 and 3. Both are difficult to
walk away from. Furthermore, and on another note, if you have not seen the
film "Shine" (the 'true' story of pianist David Helfgott) go and rent
it. It happens to be a great movie, but also prominently features the "
rock 3" piano concerto as a central theme in the plot. Geoffrey Rush
a stellar performance in that film, as does the actor who plays his character
in school years, Noah Taylor.


PS If you enjoy the Rachmaninov piano concerto's, I'd also highly recommend
taking a listen to the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto #2 - I think you'd enjoy that
very much as well. The performance I have is by Andre Previn and is available
at "the nice price" on CBS Masterworks.
As an addendum to what Uru975 contributes above, along with the few mono
recordings of Rachmaninoff performing, there is a stereo recording of a very
sophisticated transcription of some of the piano rolls that he produced titled,
"A Window in Time". These rolls recorded not only the music, but
the timing and even the impact on the keys, as I understand it. The recording
was transcribed through some sophisticated computer and output as a
'performance' on an actual Bosendorfer piano. I've heard the CD and it is
actually a very engaging performance. I don't think it is up to an actual
performance by the maestro himself, but the whole process by which they
produced the recording, as well as the recording itself is worth a listen. It is
an excellent recording as far as reproduction goes, having used very modern
recording equipment and techniques. Here's a description of the CD/process
from the Amazon website:

This collection of Rachmaninoff's solo piano
performances relies on a mix of old and new technologies. Between 1919 and
1929, Rachmaninoff cut these 19 performances to piano rolls, which would
then be played back through reproducing pianos capable of accurately re-
creating the original performances through pneumatic devices that animated
the rolls with living nuances and shades--a facet that differentiated the
classier reproduction keyboards from the more common "player
pianos." This set updates the technology with electronic devices--
transparently, though expertly, replacing the pneumatics. Played back on a
Bösendorfer Reproducing Piano, this collection sounds astounding, full of
Rachmaninoff's lickety-quick motion and his punching intensity when striking
the keys. There are 18 Rachmaninoff selections--some of them
collaborations--and one gem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," taken
to new places in this 1919 reading.

Also, one of the recent "Living Stereo" reissues contains a Fritz Reiner
performance of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no. 2. It is an SACD hybrid
and is also an accurately reproduced 3-channel recording if you have that
technology. The performance is excellent, and also has a wonderful
performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1.

Marco, There are actually 2 CD's, the first you described is Rachmaninoff playing Rachmaninoff. The second CD is Rachmaninoff performing others works. The playing may not be as good as the original (in other recordings I have by Rachmaninoff) but the sonics are better. Interesting tradeoff, and for a casual listener I would recommend the Telarcs.
Uru975: As I mentioned to Sean in a private e-mail, my father, then a young pianist and music major considering whether he should become a performing concert pianist for a career, heard Rachmaninoff play in concert and subsequently decided to become a lawyer (no jokes, please!) and play piano for his own enjoyment. His recollection to me was that he could never envision himself, let alone any other pianist, being that good. Wish I could have heard him in concert. The performances on record of Rachmaninoff in concert are interesting in that he seemed to rush tempos a bit, but his virtuosity was unquestionable.

I find it interesting to note that little mention is ever made of the 1st and 4th piano concertos. Having heard the first in concert a year or two ago, I was surprised at how comparatively "modern" it sounded--that's why I didn't mention it as Sean was asking for romantic pieces. As I recall reading, the criticism Rachmaninoff received early in his composing career, which led to his seeking professional counseling, resulted a marked change in his composing style. So I guess we can thank psychiatry for the later works.

I would also second the Cello Sonata recommended by Uru975. It is a beautiful, highly romantic, piece of music. Moving away from piano concertos and in addition to the other fine recommendations above, listen to the Vocalise, either in orchestral/vocal setting (you usually find it coupled with the 2nd Symphony) or with a violin/cello playing the singer's part with piano accompaniment. And if you ultimately want to venture more into the solo piano works, his preludes and Correlli Variations are terrific.
Thanks for a great thread everyone.
I will also look for the Cello sonata as piano and cello are my two favorite solo intruments for concertos.

Marco, I have a very old LP of saint Saens Piano concerto no 2. I really like the opening movement, but for me it falls apart after that. It's one thing to change the mood of a piece, but this particular change leaves me rather cold.

Rob Mozart PC no 20 is really great, but if I had only one movement of one concerto to take to my desert island it would have to be the slow movement (second) of Beethoven's piano conc. no 5 (Emperor). The 1st and 3rd movements are pleasant and have nice moments, but the adagio is just sublime. Whenever I've had a bad day I can count on that piece to transport me far away.

thanks again everyone
Yep, the Saint Saens is a real roller coaster ride from dramatic to whimsical. I can understand that you don't like the drastic changes. Never bothered me (obviously).

Thanks Newbee; I'll look for that other piano roll CD. Yes, it was the 'sonics' of that CD that I was awkwardly trying to complement and not the performance (though you would never think it was a machine performing).

Find a copy of Earl Wild playing Rachmaninov Piano CTO # 2. and then settle down for some true joy.
Find a copy of Earl Wild playing Rachmaninov Piano CTO # 2.

Damn, that reminds me, I had the Chesky LP version of Wild doing the Rock 2. Sold it with all my other LP's. I do remember liking that recording, but it's been many years since listening to it.

As others have stated, the 'twos' are great: piano concerto and symphony. Ashkenazy is indeed an excellent choice for the concerto. There are many, many excellent performances of this piece out there.

If you like the Rach cello sonata, check out the Shostakovich. Rachmaninoff can be a gateway drug into the slightly more modern... I think YoYo Ma and Manny Ax have a CD with both.
I'd recommend you watching movie "Shine".
It will give you a push to deeply appreciate this music.
I have seen Shine on two occasions. It is a great movie, but since I was not familiar with the Rachmaninov music prior to seeing it I rather ignored the music, focussing on the story instead.

Perhaps in a few months time I will watch it another time.
Basing on the title of the post Sean,
I'd rather say that Rachmaninov isn't for the beginners.
I consider him as a barrier between Romantic and modern classical music and also one of the most innovative and unique composers of 20th century and even upto now.
It's sophisticated for the musicians and probably only suitable to a "grandmaster" level to perform.
After understanding Rachmaninov you can start researching Prokofiev and after Alphred Schnittke(Alf).
I don't see Schnittke as the next place to go after Prokofiev. I love them both, but I wouldn't 'prepare' someone for Schnittke with Prokofiev. Are you drawing a specific musical connection between the two?