Probably the most revered of Rachmaninoff's compositions is the Second Piano Concerto, a work whose existence is attributed to the auto-suggestion therapy of a Dr. Nicholas Dahl. Rachmaninoff's need for the good doctor's services came about in this manner: in 1897, the composer was in the throes of despair over the failure of his First Symphony at its premiere at St. Petersburg. Nothing, not even subsequent success in London in his unusual triple role of pianist, conductor, and composer, could dispel the agony of the defeat. Depressed and unable to work on a concerto he had promised to bring with him on his next London visit, Rachmaninoff took the Dahl treatment.
This consisted of four months of daily sessions with the doctor, who bombarded the patient with constantly repeated, 'You will begin to write your concerto... The concerto will be of excellent quality... .' He did write the concerto, dedicating it to Dahl, and it is indeed of excellent quality, a judgment audiences have been making since it was played by the composer for the first time on October 27, 1901. It immediately took its place as one of the quintessential romantic showpieces for piano and orchestra, and this in spite of the fact that the solo is often sonically buried in unyielding orchestral textures. There are, to be sure, virtuosic flights aplenty for the piano, and lyrical ones, too, but the work is hardly all the pianist's show. The Concerto opens with a series of rather ponderous, static, unaccompanied piano chords which lead to the orchestras statement of a sardonic main theme taken by the strings while the keyboard spills out continuous cascades of harmonic embellishment.
Finally a martial answer by the piano - on the first two notes of the main theme - leads to a melodically and harmonically luxurious second theme given by piano alone. This is the breathless, heart-on-sleeve expressiveness that Rachmaninoff is all about, and its being in a major key helps to correct the notion that Rachmaninoff in excels is must be somber and maudlin. The slow movement, beginning with Beethoven 'Moonlight'-Sonata-like triplets in the piano accompanying piquant conversations in the winds, is a multi-faceted canvas on which dazzling virtuosity and impassioned emotionalism are splashed in primary colors. After some cadenza excitement, the initial mood returns, followed by some grand gestures from the keyboard which is left to conclude the movement alone, in a whisper.