“I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien,” reflected Sergei Rachmaninov in 1939. “I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new.” During his lifetime, Rachmaninov – one of the last great Romantic composers – held on to his ideals, despite critical opposition. But Rachmaninov had the last laugh. His works remain hugely popular and are regularly programmed by orchestras and pianists. 

Sergei Rachmaninov
© Public domain

The bulk of his output was composed before his self-imposed exile from Russia in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Once he emigrated to the United States, establishing a career as a (feted) concert pianist was more lucrative than composition, although six glorious late works eventually followed. Rachmaninov had also been an important conductor in Russia – at the Mamontov Private Russian Opera in Moscow, then at the Bolshoi Theatre – and his career could easily have turned down that path (he was twice offered the Boston Symphony). 

This playlist pays homage to the different facets of Rachmaninov’s career – not just the dazzling pianist-composer, but also the composer of vocal music and huge orchestral scores. 

1Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Rachmaninov’s final major work, completed in 1940, is a summation of his compositional life. There is nostalgia for the Russia he left behind in 1917, quotes from Orthodox Church music and his own First Symphony, plus his lifelong obsession with the Dies irae motif. Rachmaninov may have intended it for the ballet; its original movement titles were Noon, Twilight and Midnight. The work is brilliantly scored – written and dedicated to the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy – including the use of an alto saxophone in the first movement. The finale ends with the Dies irae finally trumped by the alleluia theme from the ninth movement of his Vespers, closing with a cataclysmic tam-tam strike. 

2Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43

Another one of Rachmaninov’s late masterpieces, composed at his summer home on the shores of Lake Lucerne, the Paganini Rhapsody is, in effect, a fifth piano concerto, a dazzling, demonic set of variations on Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 in A minor. The variations – some only a matter of seconds long – test even the most remarkable techniques, and then there’s the glorious 18th variation, where Rachmaninov literally turns Paganini’s melody on its head, inverting the tune. 

3Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, Op.18

After Rachmaninov’s First Symphony flopped at its premiere, the composer went into a deep depression. He visited Dr Nikolai Dahl, a neurologist who specialised in hypnosis, for treatment and the Second Piano Concerto was the work that he composed after the fog of his writer’s block cleared. It is the epitome of the Romantic piano concerto, with grand, sweeping melodies and a haunting, wistful atmosphere. Listen for the sound of bells in the famous opening chords. The score was made widely popular due to its use in David Lean’s film, Brief Encounter

4Symphony no. 2 in E minor, Op.27

In 1906, after two successful seasons conducting at the Bolshoi Opera, Rachmaninov moved to Dresden to focus his time on composition. One of the results was his Second Symphony, a huge work which, played uncut, lasts around an hour. The Adagio is the most celebrated movement, led by a gorgeous, winding clarinet solo. 

5Prelude in C sharp minor; Prelude in G minor, Op.23 no.5 

Rachmaninov’s compositions for solo piano are astonishing, both in their beauty and their virtuosity. His 24 preludes were published in two collections, apart from the early C sharp minor prelude, a piece that earned him much fame, but which Rachmaninov also came to despise, as he was requested to play it at every recital. “Many, many times I wish I had never written it.” There is no film footage of Rachmaninov playing the piano, so here it is, along with the G minor prelude, played by the composer himself as cut on an Ampico piano roll in 1919. 

6Do not sing, my beauty, Op.4 no.4

Rachmaninov was a fine composer of romances, following the example set by Tchaikovsky. Among the seven sets of songs, perhaps the most famous is the Op.4 song Ne poj, krasavitsa, pri mne, based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin. “Do not sing, my beauty, your songs of sad Georgia; they remind me of another life and a distant shore.” 

7Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor, Op.30

The Third is the other piano concerto that is most regularly programmed. It has the reputation of being one of the hardest to play, not least for the stamina required (it’s a long piece) and the virtuosity required. It was another Dresden composition but was premiered in New York, Rachmaninov practising the piano part on a silent keyboard on the ocean crossing to the United States. The concerto opens with an Orthodox-like chant theme. It closes with the punchy four-note motif that ends several of his works – like a personal signature: “Rach-man-in-ov”!

8The Bells, Op.35

The choral symphony Kolokola (The Bells) sets texts by Edgar Allan Poe, translated into Russian by Konstantin Balmont. Across all four movements, it makes free use of the Dies irae motif that was an idée fixe in Rachmaninov’s output. Bells accompany all stages of life in Russia, and these four movements take us from the Silver Sleigh Bells of youth to the Mournful Iron Bells that accompany funerals. 

9All-Night Vigil (Vespers), Op.37

Along with The Bells, the Vespers was Rachmaninov’s favourite of his works. It is an unaccompanied choral work from 1915 that takes texts from the Russian orthodox All-night vigil ceremony and is a supreme test of choruses worldwide, particularly the basses who need to climb down to a sepulchral low B flat at the end of the Nunc dimittis (Nyne otpushchayeshi) fifth movement, the kind of depths that only real basso profundos can plumb. 

Due to the Soviet regime’s ban on state religion, the Vespers had to wait until 1965 for its first recording. It was made by the State Academic Russian Choir of the USSR under Alexander Sveshnikov for the Melodiya label, but was only made available for export. It’s still a remarkable listen as this opening movement testifies. 

10The Isle of the Dead, Op.29

Rachmaninov’s bleak symphonic poem was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting The Isle of the Dead, depicting a figure being rowed across a lake towards a rocky island. From the beginning, the boat lurches unsteadily in 5/8 time, a deathly barcarolle as the oars dig into the water. Listen out for plenty of Dies irae quotations.