Sa Chen with Conductor Vasily Petrenko and the San Francisco Symphony

The Rachmaninoff 2nd Piano Concerto

Sa Chen with Conductor Vasily Petrenko and the San Francisco Symphony
Sa Chen with Conductor Vasily Petrenko and the San Francisco Symphony

If I were forced to pick only one piece of music as my favorite work, it would probably be Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. The now forgotten music critics of his day bashed the 2nd piano concerto as emotional drivel, in fact, tended to bash Rachmaninoff’s work in general. But this work in particular, along with many others, remains a favorite performed on concert stages the world over, and for good reason: it is sublime!

I flew out to San Francisco this past weekend to attend the concert for which we had purchased tickets last year. This particular concert was not part of our season subscription, and I didn’t know how the seats would be. I was on the 8th row and could see the keyboard beautifully! I was thrilled and couldn’t wait for the concert to begin.

But, it is there, sadly, that my typically unabashed enthusiasm for the concert comes to a close. I am going to assume that my prime location in the concert hall for seeing the performance was not a good choice for listening to it. Let me explain.

The midtones of the Steinway were muddy and always overpowered the brighter higher notes. In fact, much of the time, I could only imagine hearing the top voice/melody. It was routinely obscured. Even the inner voices, which have fabulous and delicate secondary melodic arches in them, were too muddy to be discerned. This was incredibly disappointing.

The orchestra, again mainly the midtones of the orchestra, were frequently overpowering the piano. And even in the most aggressive passages where the pianist plays mirrored giant cords in both hands designed to come to a thunderous climax, the piano was lost to the rich and enthusiastic orchestral accompaniment.

The pianist, Sa Chen1, took an occasional risk with some aggressively fast tempi, and while she always did so with technical excellence, I felt the passages were not properly setup for such speed making the bright tempi seem a bit out of place. Additionally, the sostenuto pedal work seemed much too “wet” to me, especially at the very beginning of the first movement, which also felt rushed. I found myself begging her, at the beginning, to pedal more precisely—to clean up the muddled mess!! And, finally, I don’t mean to sound chauvinistic, but I have yet to hear a woman perform a Rachmaninoff concerto with the physical strength the pieces demand. The 2nd and 3rd piano concerti are wicked difficult and demand a great deal of technical precision and sheer physical strength to voice properly, especially over the aggressive orchestral.

I do think the muddy mids and overpowering orchestra were a direct result of where I sat; however, the voicing issues and pedal work I suspect were a performance issue made worse by the seat location. Whatever my critique however, the audience lapped up the performance, especially the man seated directly in front of me: whooping and all but dancing at his seat—no, he was definitely dancing as he applauded. Her encore, a Rachmaninoff Etude, was delightful.

The remainder of the concert was wonderful, but I flew in from Atlanta for one reason, and one reason only: to bask in the delight of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. Despite its issues, I thrilled to every second of it! In fact, it’s probably a good thing the concert wasn’t perfect as they would have had to ship my body back to Atlanta as my soul would have separated from my mortal coil!

  1. with Vasily Petrenko conducting 

One thought on “The Rachmaninoff 2nd Piano Concerto”

  1. Sad to hear (no pun intended). My mom (an accomplished pianist) played that piece (on vinyl) so often while I was growing up that I thought it was popular music. I’ve only ever heard portions live when my mom played it (she had massive hands btw–I do NOT take after her As you know). I have never heard it in concert (living in the hinterlands), but hope if I do that it is as glorious as it can be.

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