(Sviatoslav Richter. One of the marks of a great piece of music is that in every great performer's hand, it sounds like different but equally great piece.)
When you hear the simple humanity present in so much Rachmaninov, it's impossible not to allow him his rightful place in the pantheon. Rachmaninov can't be held responsible for how orchestras and pianists, particularly American ones, have exploited him so mercilessly to make him sound like a purveyor of trivially sentimental movie soundtracks with their coitus-like swells and cliched emotional cues. More even than Tchaikovsky, a concert with a Rachmaninov piece is the way to attract a sellout crowd who like their classical music with no challenge to either their emotions or their intelligence.
To be sure, Rachmaninov is not free of that sentimentality. There is an element in his music of soft-core eroticism that seems to describe a banal person's idea of love and heartbreak. But the real Rachmaninov, even the Rachmaninov of his most sentimental passages, is so much more complicated than that.
He probably shares, along with his exact contemporary and childhood friend Scriabin, the moniker of the Russian Piano Composer par excellence. But Scriabin and Rachmaninov are precise opposites, as different as Liszt and Chopin, or Kanye and Jay Z. Scriabin is all mania and abandon, an eruption of strange ideas who vomits on the page without regard to whether the music works or doesn't. If Scriabin is all abandon, then Rachmaninov is all control - the precise opposite of the overtly emotional Russian he's often portrayed to be. His music works not because of overstatement but understatement. No matter what Rachmaninov composed, his command of every major element of music - form, harmony, melody, orchestration, rhythm - was absolutely perfect, as though it arrives to us like an aural illustration from a textbook.
Rachmaninov was the most understated of men, perhaps because he could not fail to be noticed. He was a full six and a half feet tall and an honored member of an ancient aristocratic Russian family. His family was so noble and perhaps so inbred that he married his first cousin and few people thought much of it.
Since Rachmaninov was at very least as great a pianist than composer, his perfection as a pianist and interpreter was no less formidable than as a composer. And after this Russian aristocrat was forced to leave his homeland forever in 1917, he was able to earn a very wealthy living as the most legendary pianist of his time (or at least one of the two, the other being his best friend, Josef Hofmann).
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think that even at the height of fame, a Russian aristocrat like Rachmaninov would ever have been comfortable anywhere but in his homeland, on his own property. He was clearly a melancholy man long before he left Russia, and after the 5-foot-3 Stravinsky met Rachmaninov, he memorably described the taller composer as 'Six-feet-six of Russian gloom."
Stravinsky, who was quite influenced by Scriabin, was in his different way as polar opposite to Rachmaninov as Scriabin was. Perhaps Stravinsky's most famous quote is his stated belief that there is no such thing as feeling in music. For Rachmaninov, as though one needed to be told, there was only feeling in music. He once wrote that "I compose music because I must give expression to my feelings, just as I talk because I must give utterance to my thoughts." He also wrote "What is music? How do you define it? Music is a calm moonlit night, the rustle of leaves in Summer. Music is the far off peal of bells at dusk! Music comes straight from the heart and talks only from the heart: it is Love! Music is the Sister of Poetry, and her Mother is sorrow!"
The purple quasi-poetry of this passage bespeaks a romantic mentality that is a universe away from the quasi-scientific manner of Stravinsky. Nevertheless, look at those pictures of Rachmaninov. This was not a man attempting to be anything resembling a Byronic hero, he looks like he could easily have been a military officer. Rather than Byronic curls he kept his full head of hair cropped like an army private. Rather than a Tennysonesque beard, he always kept his face clean-shaven. Rachmaninov may have hailed from a Romantic era and ethos, but within that ethos, he was as anti-romantic as a composer can become. It is the tension between the innate romanticism of his worldview and the innate stoicism of his temperament that gives his music so much emotional control - he not only writes for and plays the piano like only a handful of masters, he's also able to play the audience like a piano, with whom he can communicate so directly because the discipline with which he expresses is in its way as militant as Stravinsky's or Schoenberg's.
Rachmaninov wrote this unbelievably beautiful and moving B-Minor prelude in 1910. I think, rather than my trying to explain it, I'll have one of his great artistic heirs - Benno Moiseiwitch, which is in itself an unbelievably moving document.