BBC Proms 2011: Prom 35 / Rachmaninov Symphony 2 / Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Rachmaninov’s second symphony is a special work. It’s my work. My symphony. My soundtrack. All mine.

I share it with a great many other people. Around Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 is a network of friends, associates, a few who have fallen out of favour and a handful who have fallen off the radar too. There’s even one who will never hear it any more.

What connects all of those people in my life is one CD with a brown cover of a recording made by the London Symphony Orchestra, given to me on my 21st birthday in September 1993.

“Here,” said a friend thrusting a gift into my hand, “this is for you.”

I tore the paper of what was obviously a CD box and stared at the cover. Rachmaninov Symphony No.2. “It’s got a fantastic clarinet solo in it,” she grinned, “you’ll love it.” Her sisters nodded in agreement.

This was a work I hadn’t heard before. A work we hadn’t played in Suffolk Youth Orchestra while I was a member. We’d not collectively experienced this piece of classical music. So it hadn’t been in my collection. This was a new introduction. A new CD to put on the shelf.

I’d known Rachmaninov’s Paganini variations but not been aware he’d even written one symphony, let alone two. A symphony by Rachmaninov sounded rather odd. Saying it out loud made it even more odd. Rachmaninov 2. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d heard anybody in my circle of friends utter those words.

I remember listening to it a few times after my birthday, thinking how terribly rich it seemed. How vast. And how incredibly large and expansive the sound. But I never especially lost myself in the moment the music was trying to create. I was listening for the mechanics of the music. Not it’s emotion.

And listening intently to the clarinet solo in the second movement, I was trying desperately to imagine what it would be like to play that line from slap bang in the middle of the orchestra. Wondering whether I ever would. The drama wasn’t in the music. The potential drama was in my head. The music – in a way – was almost incidental. At that age, it only became something of ‘note’ if I’d played it. Experienced it first hand.

It’s only now I listen to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Rachmaninov from the BBC Proms 2011 I’m reminded to what extent I had completely missed the point of my friend’s birthday gift.

She knew that all of us in our special group of friends at Suffolk Youth bonded because of the music we played. To introduce a new piece none of us had played together risked the work being overlooked. So she used a ‘hook’ to introduce the CD to me. Her ‘hook’ was the clarinet solo. But that was all it was ever meant to be. A hook. From that moment on, I’d thought the reason I’d received a recording was all about the clarinet solo and nothing else.

To my shame, the CD remained on my shelf of other discs for a number of years to follow. First in Derby Road, Worcester, later in Britten Close, Aldeburgh. It was a rare occasion I dug it out and played it. Even when I did, the potential for escapism was about imagining performance than anything else.

Something significant changed in April 1998. A few months before I’d met my now partner The Chap. The inevitable CD playing phase ensued soon after we’d both clocked I was visiting his flat on a fairly regular basis, each successive day bringing a wider selection of CDs with me to test out on his considerably more generous music system.

I was in part inquisitive about the quality of the sound production. How would my recordings of Shostakovich’s Leningrad sound via the The Chap’s Yamaha amp and NS10’s? What about Brahms’ Clarinet Sonatas? Or the Saint-Saens? Or the Franck Violin Sonata?

Getting him to like the music was secondary. This was all about seeing how much better my CDs would sound on his system. In fact, given his passion for Fleetwood Mac, Sondheim, ELO and his then obsession for Famous Blue Raincoat, I saw classical music on his system as nothing more than the equivalent of testing out new sound equipment in a showroom.

Rachmaninov’s second symphony did get played. It had been my intention to play the third movement – loud, bombastic, full of string texture – but accidentally ended up on the slow movement. We both sat back, both of us listening to vast expanse of strings, me hearing the movement for what felt like the first time.

The sound which emerged from the monitors in the room was incredible. Up until that point I’d only heard classical music on my CD system which – I’d thought – wasn’t all that bad at all. It had a special “Wide” setting to enhance the acoustic mix. As far as I was concerned, it was quite good.

But The Chap’s music system was entirely different. Separate units seemed to promise an altogether superior listening experience. And it hadn’t disappoint. It transformed the Rachmaninov (along with Shostakovich’s Lenningrad).

From the urgency of the opening melody in the second movement, to the delicate yet agonisingly beautiful melody played by the clarinet and heart-stopping emotion which follows in the development of that theme, Rachmaninov’s music insisted that its newest listener submitted in the most basic of human responses.

Intent on commenting on the revelation of the quality of the sound production, I turned back to look at him to find tears streaming down his face.

Tears hadn’t rolled down my cheeks, but I’d felt something change inside me. I can remember that much. I’d been stunned by how effortlessly Rachmaninov had orchestrated his music to convey such raw, joyous emotion.

All it had taken (four years after the CD had been given to me) was for it to be played on a decent amp and with the volume to be turned up high. Listening to the movement in this new location in someone else’s front room, with this special person sat next to me had unlocked something: an unexpected appreciation for this piece of music. A special moment for so many different reasons. That moment remains embedded in my memory.

I moved in a few weeks later.

But as I mentioned earlier, it’s also a work which underpins a narrative, or network of connected friends.

These are not only the friends who were there when the music was introduced to me, but also those with whom me and The Chap chose to share it with soon after we’d ‘discovered’ it together. Those friends who in turn who have received a recording of Rachmaninov 2 as a gift, those who have rung up to ask me ‘what is that composer’s name – you know, the one who wrote the music that makes you two cry?’. That friend who was momentarily taken out of his drunken ranting while he sat motionless listening to the second movement for the first time, the same friend who’s now no longer with us. And the person who reckoned our collective reaction was overstated and laughable to observe. Mind you, look what happened to him at the House of Commons.

There aren’t many works which have this effect. Nor can I think of many which have in the history of my own personal musical appreciation been loved for different reasons and in different ways. That makes this work incredibly special and because of that all important second movement, Rachmaninov’s second symphony is something I come back to time and time again in the many different performances I’ve heard since that fateful evening in 1998.

The reassuring yet bewildering power the music still has is undeniable. Whenever I heard the opening of the second movement now I will – without fail – end up crying. I’m never able to pinpoint exactly why, or identify what the emotion is underlying the tears when I hear it. It is just as though that moment of hearing the movement in an entirely different way woke me up to it’s emotional quality so that each subsequent performance is something akin to an involuntary reaction. (Interestingly however, it has to be preceeded by the first movement and followed by the remainder of the symphony. Taking it out of context doesn’t – thankfully – have the same effect.)

But it’s works like this (and a few others) which illustrate my love of this art-form. Orchestrations can be multi-layered. Compositional technique can be terribly clever. The melody can be memorable. Composers themselves can be notorious.

But when something written 100 years ago with it’s own history gets embedded into your own personal narrative, then over time it can take on some strange qualities. It’s possible it can even become a friend. A friend as important as the one who introduced you to the work in the first place or even the one who helped transform your appreciation of it quite unexpectedly years later.

Little wonder Rachmaninov’s second symphony feels like my symphony. It is my symphony. It is my friend.

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