Rachmaninov times Three, December 15, 2009

Twice today, once in the morning and once in the evening, I sat in my truck to hear the end of a song, hoping to get the title of the piece and the name of the composer. Because the piece was a symphony, my wait was considerable, 20 or 30 minutes. Each time I listened, I teared up. On both occasions, the selection — Symphony #2 by Sergei Rachmaninov — was the same, though I didn’t realize it at the time. When I got home, I promptly purchased a copy of the recording (by Andre Previn and the London Symphony).
I don’t have a trained understanding of classical music but I listen to it a lot, usually on NPR. (I doubt that there is much threat of this happening but please don’t be impressed. If someone were to ask me for my finest technical assessment o the piece, I’d say, in my finest high-brow, “I like it. It’s really beautiful.”) That said, I recommend it highly to anyone who 1) has even an inkling of taste for orchestral music and 2) has the ability to sit and simply listen, hands empty, phone off, eyes closed (your car or pick up truck would be a great place to hear it.) If you listen to no other part, the Third Movement is quite something.
I remember the first time I was conscious of hearing Rachmaninov. I was in college, a freshman at Mercer University. An orchestra played on campus and, for reasons unknown to me now, I went. One of the selections that night was Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, by Rachmaninov, which was somewhat popularized in the movie “Somewhere in Time.” This past summer, every night for a couple of months, I fell asleep to the beautiful music of that soundtrack. Hello Rachmaninov.
The next time I was conscious of hearing a piece by him was a Saturday afternoon about 10 or 12 years ago. I was home that weekend, in the house with the radio on, when a short (2:51) melodic choral piece caught my attention. It was, I learned, a song called “Praise the Lord from the Heavens” from a large composition called “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom”. The music is entirely vocal, almost Gregorian sounding, austere, reverent, haunting. (I can hear myself talking to some classical music audiophile on the airplane, “I like it. It’s really beautiful, but quite different than, say, his second symphony.” Wouldn’t they be impressed?)
There are many times – during prayer, on cloudy days, when I want to rest or think through something – that “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” is my first choice of accompaniment. (The recording I have is by the Kansas City Chorale. You can find it at www.kcchorale.org at the “recordings” tab.)
Music taste being what it is, I can’t be certain that you’d like any of these pieces by this late 19th, early 20th century Russian pianist, but he’s been present in my pick up, at my bedside, and at my prayer altar for years. His music is good for my soul; might be for your’s too.