The real Rachmaninov is practically unknown to his greatest admirers, and frankly a lot more interesting than the half-dozen pieces of his we hear ad nauseum. To most listeners (in America at least), Rachmaninov signifies easy listening - good ol' fashioned music with lots of hummable melodies and drama. "They don't make composers like that anymore. It's almost like watching a movie."
The truth remains that that for most of his life Rachmaninov was about as good a composer as one can be without being a truly great one. Technically, he was always impeccable. His concertos, symphonies and piano pieces are all masterly from the standpoints of form, instrumental technique, and yes, they have wonderful melodies. The problem is that they're almost entirely conventional, and on repeated hearings you begin to wonder, 'where's the originality?' Tchaikovsky (his idol) and Scriabin (his childhood friend) had nowhere near Rach's perfection of technique. But they had an ability to surprise us, to confidently sound like themselves, in a way that Rachmaninov rarely summoned up the courage to do. Yes, Rachmaninov's melodies are very much his own, yet the music which contains it can also feel as though it was constructed in an assembly line. Rachmaninov's problem was not that his music was conservative, his problem was that his music was conventional.
(The Isle of the Dead - yes that's a toothpick the conductor's using.)
As a person, Rachmaninov was conventional almost to a fault. The composer Abram Chasins once wrote about Rachmaninov that "[he] had only one ordinary characteristic: ordinary." He was a Russian aristocrat who idolized Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy, and both in turn considered him the 'Next Great Russian Composer.' But while in his youth Rachmaninov wrote music that reflected the tastes of the Russian Aristocracy, Scriabin and Stravinsky wrote music that portrayed their country's times of troubles far more vividly.
Yet for a few years, mostly during the First World War, Rachmaninov became a great composer with genuine vision and fire. His music lived on the edge in a way it never before did, and never would again. The music was startlingly different. The font of melody was there, but it was accompanied by a new vitality. The drama was not the predictable rhythmically four-square climax with lots of diminished chords. The harmonies were downright strange, and the rhythms suddenly took on a Stravinskian irregularity. It was as though a true compositional genius was emerging which could combine the harmonic innovations of Scriabin with the rhythmic confusion of Stravinsky.
But then the Russian Revolution occurred, and Rachmaninov was forced from his home country, his money and land possessed by the government. For the rest of his life, Rachmaninov made his living as a pianist and went back to composing in his spare time, with conservative results that had far more resemblance to his early output.