Sergei Rakhmaninov. Piano Concerto No. 2. You can hear Yuja Wang do a nice version of it on YouTube. I’m pretty sure this was the first classical record I ever purchased. Not the first classical record I owned – that was Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, a family heirloom I wore out the grooves on – but the first I bought. And even if it wasn’t the first classical record I bought, it is the first that ever competed seriously with records by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Ray Charles, the Kinks and a few others for my attention. Rakhmaninov’s second piano concerto is some of the most moving, I would even say disturbing, music I have ever heard. At least that is true of the first few minutes and of those segments that reprise the stunning opening. In there you can hear the elements whirl and stir, you can hear the planet groan as it expands and contracts. In it you feel time racing ahead, out of control. There is in this music chaos and raw, elemental power.
The concerto itself is so unlike this monument on Strastnoi Boulevard, in which the composer looks to me to be a proper, self-satisfied dandy! His bow tie and his slicked-back hair, his tightly-fitting jacket and his vest, his long, loose fingers and his lithe, lanky body all suggest a man who is well-packed up in his formidable defenses against the kind of chaos we hear in the first few minutes of the piano concerto. I like this sculpture by Oleg Komov and Andrei Kovalchuk. And I love the setting amidst the flowers and the shivering, rustling greenery. But there’s something about it that’s a little too slippery. I slip and slide right by it without ever quite getting inside. The hands, though, are gorgeous. No two ways about that. Those are the hands of a pianist and composer. They have powerful music in them. [ADDED July 4]: If you doubt that last statement, go here to hear the man play his Piano Concerto No. 2 himself.