We can never unhear the soundscape of our times. As I continue to bask 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 with Hélène Grimaud:
And while I’m on Rachmaninoff, I can’t believe I never got to play the 2nd symphony, also overwhelming… Of all the versions, I’m attached to this: