Rachmaninoff was one of the greatest pianists the world has ever known, and the music he wrote for the instrument is passionate, sensual and thrilling. His Second Piano Concerto was life-changing, marking the moment when the composer returned from years of severe depression – confounding his critics, and establishing him as an international celebrity.
He wrote many pieces that feature the piano, either as solo instrument or for piano with orchestra, and regularly played them in his own concerts. They are often very difficult pieces to play, but Rachmaninoff wasn’t particularly interested in flashy, virtuosic playing for its own sake: he was much more concerned with exploring the piano’s potential for expressing emotion.
His composing career suffered a serious setback in 1897, with the premiere of his Symphony No. 1: the critics tore it to shreds, and Rachmaninoff lost all confidence in his ability to compose. He fell into a deep depression that lasted for several years, and was unable to write anything until he underwent a course of psychotherapy. The piece which got him composing again was the Piano Concerto No. 2; unlike the First Symphony, it was a huge success and has remained a favourite to this day.
Rachmaninoff was deeply attached to his native Russia, but the Russian Revolution forced him to leave the country for good. Although he didn’t really like the USA, he couldn’t find a steady income anywhere in Europe to support his family, so he ended up living in New York, working as a concert pianist. Even in that cosmopolitan city, he did his best to recreate the atmosphere of his beloved homeland, surrounding himself with Russian guests, hiring Russian servants and observing Russian customs.
As a pianist, his heavy touring schedule made it very difficult to find time or energy to compose, and he wrote only a handful of major works during his 26 years of exile — including Variations on a Theme of Corelli, and the 18th Variation of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.