Rachmaninov: did he let the piano steal the cello’s thunder?

Today’s the birth anniversary of Sergei Rachmaninov (1 April 1873 – 28 March 1943). There are several anglicised versions of this great Russian composer’s name but I’ll just stick with this one for this post.

Rachmaninov belongs to the club of great piano works composers. Other club members extraordinaires include Chopin and Liszt.

Like Chopin who infused his native Polish sensibilities into his music, Rachmaninov is widely recognised as having encapsulated the Romanticism of Russian classical music in his works. However unlike Chopin, whose known works all involve the piano in one way or another, Rachmaninov’s works cover a wider range of genre, form and other instruments such as orchestral works, operas, choral works, songs and concertos.

Like Liszt, Rachmaninov was also a known virtuoso (read: a very skillful performer who is exciting to watch) and who also gained some success in his career as a conductor. But unlike Liszt, Rachmaninov was born in an era when technology was fortunately advanced enough. Lucky for us because we get to listen to his recorded performances now!

There are many works by Rachmaninov that are recorded, performed, put on Youtube (again, bless technology!) for all and sunder. You may be wondering, why is it that musicians after him keep on playing his works? Well, it’s the same principle as why people  today still sing/perform “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that was composed way back in the 1930s – which when you think about it, is the contemporary of Rachmaninov! Ah, the enduring allure of good music.

Some of Rachmaninov’s more popular works include his Piano Concertos No. 2 & 3,  Rhapsody & Variations on a Theme by Paganini, the symphonies and a whole bunch of piano works. The list goes on, so go forth and discover!

Personally, one of my favourite Rachmaninov works is the Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, op. 19. Traditionally, in sonata form, the cello is the star/principal instrument whereas the piano is merely the accompaniment. In this Cello Sonata, some people believe that Rachmaninov may have written a piano sonata instead. But I believe it as an equal partnership and each instrument complements the other. Rachmaninov may be a pianist by training, but he managed to fully employ the cello’s expressive and mellow quality and wrote one of the most romantic cello works of all time. Enhanced by the rich piano part, this Cello Sonata radiates with assertive sensuality and passion. I can’t recall the exact words, but in one interview, a pianist compared the Cello Sonata to a satisfying 9-course gourmet meal.

To sample this “gourmet meal”, here is the 4th movement performed by Lynn Harrell (cello) and Wang Yuja (piano).


Further references:

Rachmaninov’s works have been referred to or used in popular culture. Here are some (and feel free to add):

Shine – 1996 film about Australian pianist David Helfgott (played by Geoffrey Rush) and his physical and mental struggles.  A beautifully-made movie (in my opinion, at least). The Rach 3 (piano concerto no. 3) and Prelude in C sharp minor Op.3 no. 2 anchor the soundtrack.

Brief Encounter – 1945 film about, well literally, a brief encounter. This black & white film transports one back to the era of crisp British dialogue and class etiquette. Rachmaninov’s lush and haunting piano concerto no.2 is featured throughout the movie.




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