Piano Sonata No. 2 (Rachmaninoff)
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Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 36, is a piano sonata in B-flat minor composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1913. Rachmaninoff revised it in 1931, with the note, "The new version, revised and reduced by author."
Three years after his third piano concerto was finished, Rachmaninoff moved with his family to a house in Rome that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky had used. It was during this time in Rome that Rachmaninoff started working on his second piano sonata. However, because both of his daughters contracted typhoid fever, he was unable to finish the composition in Rome. Instead, Rachmaninoff moved his family on to Berlin in order to consult with doctors. When the girls were well enough, Rachmaninoff traveled with his family back to his Ivanovka country estate, where he finished the second piano sonata. Its premiere took place in St. Petersburg in December 1913.
The sonata is in three interrelated movements:
- Allegro agitato
- Non allegro
- Allegro molto
First Movement (Allegro agitato)
The first movement of the second piano sonata is in sonata allegro form. The exposition starts with the first theme, which has a descending arpeggio that ends with a low B-flat octave followed by a B-flat minor chord. The first theme area lasts until a cadenza-like passage creates a bridge into the second theme area. The second theme is in D-flat major, with a chorale-like texture that contrasts with the brilliance of the first theme.
In the development section, which is split into three parts, there is much tonal instability with constantly changing key centers. Parts of this section use the left hand to imitate bells, with chromatic descending, alternating sevenths and thirds.
The recapitulation restates the first two themes in B-flat minor. The final section of an extension to the recapitulation alternates between B-flat major and B-flat minor, leaving the tonic unclear until the coda. The coda, clearly in B-flat minor, repeats two themes seen earlier in the movement.
Second Movement (Non allegro)
The second movement of the Piano Sonata is in two-part ternary form. A seven-measure interlude in G major links the first and second movements, after which there is a relative minor key area (E minor). The second movement's main theme is based on a motive of a sequentially repeated falling third.
The second movement references material from the first movement, which is the first instance of cyclic unity in the sonata. For example, in the middle-section of this movement, the bell texture from the first movement is reestablished.
Third Movement (Allegro molto)
The third movement begins with a repetition of the interlude to the second movement, with the meter shifted from 4/4 to 3/4. This movement, again in sonata-allegro form, further utilizes cyclic unity by using themes from the first movement. The transition to the second theme area of the exposition introduces a new theme (in D major), unusual in sonata-allegro form.
The development section, as in the first movement, is also split into three sub-sections. Similar to the exposition, it uses themes from the first movement in addition to the new themes introduced in the exposition.
The recapitulation is in B-flat major, and states the first theme from the third movement only once. It utilizes another past theme expansively to lead toward the coda. The coda utilizes themes from the first movement and is highly chromatic and brilliant.
When Rachmaninoff performed the piece at its premiere in Moscow, it was well received. However, Rachmaninoff himself was not satisfied with the work. He felt that too much in the piece was superfluous. Thus, in 1931, Rachmaninoff commenced work on a revision, which included shortening and removing some technical difficulties.
Differences in the Revised Edition
In the first movement, Rachmaninoff shortened the transitions in the exposition and recapitulation, and compressed the development section. He left the coda unchanged. In the middle section of the second movement, he used one of the themes from the first movement less expansively. In the third movement, he also shortened the transitions. Additionally, he removed the transition into the recapitulation.
In 1940, with the composer's consent, Vladimir Horowitz created his own edition which combined elements of both the original and revised versions. His edition used more original material than revised throughout all three movements. A performance of the Horowitz revision lasts approximately 22 minutes.
- Piano Sonata No. 2: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)
- Recording by Cecile Licad from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in MP3 format
- History of the different versions of the piece
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