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19 December 2017

Sarah Perry on Rachmaninov: “By the end of the first movement I was in tears”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

By Sarah Perry

There was never any pop or rock music in the house when I grew up, so the idea of an album in the ordinary sense (parents playing the Beatles in the car; saving up for your first record and then, later, wearing a band T-shirt; whatever is the usual way of things) means very little to me. The first album I got for myself was a free CD taped to the front of a BBC music magazine, The Best of Chuck Berry. I suspect I only very dimly realised the music was from decades before.

So my favourite album, I’m afraid, is the Portuguese pianist Sequeira Costa’s recording of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. My father is a great fan of classical music, and had a pair of enormous mahogany veneered speakers that towered over me when I was a small child, and that shivered when he played the Beethoven Late String Quartets at top volume. One morning – I think I was about 13, which is exactly the age of sentiment and yearning when you ought, ideally, to first encounter Rachmaninov – I was coming down the stairs, and as I reached the landing the opening chords rang out through the house. I was so thunderstruck I sat on the steps to listen, and by the end of the first movement was in tears. I wafted into the room and declared that it was my favourite piece of music, ever, and that I would never listen to anything else. I had no idea, of course, that it’s largely considered too sentimental for words, and good for nothing but films in which people swoon at each other on railway station platforms – as far as I was aware, it was a rare and splendid discovery and one that I needn’t share with anybody else.

Since then I have listened to it over and over again, always leaping to my feet as the first movement goes into its transports of ecstasy, then sinking back into melancholy in the second movement. Costa’s recording isn’t, so far as I know, especially admired or well known, but so far as I am concerned it is the standard from which every other pianist deviates. Every other performance I’ve heard is too hasty, too bright in the opening chord progression; only Costa gets it right – only Costa makes me feel 13 again.

Read the rest of the series here.

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special