We can never unhear the soundscape of our times (for a roundup of posts on reception history, see here).
As I continue to delight in Hélène Grimaud, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto (1902) comes with a lot of accumulated baggage, which may both blur and enrich our appreciation. The most obvious instance is the soundtrack of Brief encounter.
Even for me, growing up in the swinging 60s, this is an inescapable association—let alone for my parents’ generation, for whom the story of the wife’s reluctant retreat from a life-enhancing affair back to a stultifying marriage would have been still more telling, and modern, than for more recent audiences in similar situations. Readily parodied, the film must have meant a lot when it was released—in 1945, of all times (the play by Nöel Coward dates from 1936; it was at his insistence that the concerto was later used for the film). And then we might try and think ourselves back to 1902 when Rachmaninoff completed it…
Whether or not we can (or wish to) put all this aside, it’s a magical concerto—especially in the hands of Hélène Grimaud and Claudio Abbado:
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And while I’m on Rachmaninoff, I can’t believe I never got to play the 2nd symphony, also overwhelming… Of all the versions, André Previn’s recording with the LSO is much praised (for his name in Chinese, see here):
The great Rozhdestvensky with the LSO in 1988:
(cf. their live performance in 1984, with cuts).
But I’m most attached to this live performance in the Concertgebouw:
This seems to be an exception to my rule that our experience of all kinds of music is enriched by early associations. Not only have I never played it, I only got to know it properly over the last few years.