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Superb control … sensitive attunement … consummate care


One of the more curious musicological tidbits about Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 has to do with its re-emergence in popular music circles in 1976. That’s the year Eric Carmen’s “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” which borrows melodically from the symphony, reached number eleven on Billboard’s ‘Hot 100’ chart. …

The yearning melody Carmen adopted suffers no lessening of impact when delivered by Simon Callaghan and Hiro Takenouchi in their new four-hand arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s symphony. While many composers have created two-piano versions of their music, the Russian composer didn’t produce one for that particular work (especially surprising when he did create two-piano arrangements for his first and third symphonies), which incited the pianists to generate one themselves (for the record, a four-hand treatment of the second was created by Vladimir Wilschau in 1910). Premiered in 1908, the symphony comprises four fluid movements packaged into a compact hour-long presentation.

Rachmaninoff eases the listener into the opening “Largo – Allegro moderato” movement with shadowy, meditative gestures. Expanding from that kernel, the patterns multiply into an intricate embroidery as the music scales upwards and the haunting theme that will be intensively developed in the slow movement allusively emerges.

Like a faint echo, that theme is teased repeatedly as the music ebbs and flows, the pianists demonstrating superb control as they calibrate adjustments in pacing and dynamics.

Sensitive attunement to the movement’s arc is clearly demonstrated in their handling of the music’s incremental unfolding and execution of the climactic peak that arrives past the halfway mark. The two deliver the passage that follows gracefully, the theme again emerging to impose calm where there had been turbulence. In contrast to the first movement, the “Allegro molto” scherzo establishes a robust presence immediately with an opening ostinato that slyly references the haunting theme introduced earlier. The pace slows briefly before the music resumes an energetic and vigorous attack that remains largely in place for the remainder of the movement.

The tender theme declares itself at the outset of the slow movement and then branches into entwining patterns the pianists voice with consummate care.

While a sense of calm pervades the movement, tension is nevertheless present in the music’s repeated rise and fall and the rapture with which the melody’s voiced. The “Allegro vivace” finale decompresses from a rousing opening into an even-keeled presentation that sees the lyrical melody again emerging. Halfway through, however, the pace picks up, and the music barrels forth determinedly until it reaches its rollicking resolution.

One can’t help but be awed by the synchronicity with which the pianists execute the work’s passages, be they furiously driven or contemplative.

What Callaghan and Takenouchi have accomplished is, in a word, remarkable:

to translate the symphonic scope of the large-scale opening movement into a twenty-one-minute treatment for two pianos is alone impressive; that they extend that artfulness to the work in its entirety is all the more striking. To have distilled the textures of Rachmaninoff’s symphonic design into a pianistic form that’s as gripping is surely no small feat. It’s worth noting, however, the pianists’ statement that they aimed to “create a true piano work, rather than a less-than-satisfactory imitation of the orchestral version,” something, in other words, that holds up on its own terms and isn’t a mere facsimile of the original. Regardless, the lyrical expressiveness and dramatic sweep that are so fundamental to the symphony remain solidly in place in the pianists’ re-imagining, which they recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall in the UK during February 2022.

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