December 6, New York: Years ago, I convinced my mother that the media I most wanted for Christmas was the Rachmaninoff Complete Recordings. It was a handsome set of CDs (the pinnacle of recording technology in that time), featuring Rachmaninoff’s work played by Rachmaninoff. Amazing. Though expensive, it was a good investment. That boxed set (particularly the first two discs, composed of his piano concertos) was my go-to classical fare for much of my twenties. Whenever the high-faluting mood took me, Sergei and his piano were there.
I still have those CDs, but they’re buried in deep storage and I wanted to listen to the albums away from the house. Ah the plight of the modern condition. I want it now! Here! Surely I could find this music streaming on the internet? Well, it took some sleuthing! Rdio did not have the complete recordings (and I only remembered the album by sight, not by exact name). So I Googled into the Amazon and I found a visually-similar collection just of the Piano Concertos. Cross-checked: it’s right there on Rdio. Success!
There are four concertos, numbered one through four, and I mostly know them inside and out. But it is the very beginning of Piano Concerto No. 1 that I could start singing from memory anywhere and anytime. No earworm could possibly dislodge it; I could be standing in the middle of the stage at the VMAs, pop music on full assault, and I could still pluck this melody out of the distant reaches of my memory. The orchestra clears it throat with eight quick notes and then it begins, that chaotic Rachmaninoff piano I love so much. This section in particular, which sounds like a ragdoll tumbling down a steep slope. The chaos is what attracted me to Rachmaninoff: great rushes of it, of organized, planned chaos that takes your full attention to follow the pattern and assure yourself that you are not listening to an orchestra tear itself apart in a concert hall donnybrook. It is commanding chaos.
It’s always been Russian composers for me. And you see this across the Thirty-Three Project. In my teens: Tchaikovsky. Going into my thirties: Shostakovich. And here, right in between, Sergei Rachmaninoff and his crazy pianos.