It can be easy to forget that even creative giants throughout history experienced writer’s block. After the premiere of his first symphony, Sergei Rachmaninov suffered a crisis of confidence, which spiralled into a period of depression. The performance was disparaged by critics and audiences alike; an under-rehearsed orchestra and a sloppy, reportedly drunk conductor certainly didn’t help.

Three years went by and Rachmaninov still felt unable to compose. Finally, he sought treatment from Dr Nikolai Dahl, a psychiatrist who specialised in hypnosis therapy. After months of daily sessions, the dark cloud over his inspiration lifted and Rachmaninov entered a period of creative productivity. Public acclaim came with the premiere of his second piano concerto. This success was followed by two operas, a cello sonata, and a full schedule as the resident conductor of the Imperial Opera at the Bolshoi Theatre, which kept him busy.

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Lawrence Renes conducting Rachmaninov Symphony No 2, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Nico Keenan

Despite this, Rachmaninov experienced trepidation over writing another symphony, working fastidiously on drafts over the summers of 1906 and 1907. His perfectionism paid off as his Symphony No 2 premiered to a hugely enthusiastic reception in Saint Petersburg in January 1908, and rapidly entered the repertoire of orchestras worldwide.

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2 marked their first time on the Hamer Hall stage since the recent Victorian lockdowns. It was a fitting programming decision in many ways: an artist overcoming significant personal stress to arrive at a creative triumph is certainly a ‘feel-good’ story we can all appreciate after the gruelling events of the past year. And in this post-pandemic environment, which favours concerts running straight through with no interval, this piece traverses a world of colour in its one-hour running time. Dutch-Maltese conductor Lawrence Renes was in command from the podium.

The Allegro Moderato first movement is the longest of the four, a landscape of light and shade that reveals itself gradually after an extended slow introduction. The orchestra navigated this landscape with delicacy and restraint. Over the course of 20 minutes, the ensemble fostered an ambiguous and absorbing atmosphere, somewhere between cautious hope and melancholy.

The sharper rhythms of the Scherzo second movement provided an ample contrast. The orchestra galloped along, cleanly managing energetic, overlapping rhythmic figures. Renes capably steered the orchestra with precise, pulse-focused conducting.

The Adagio third movement was an absolute highlight. A Romantic movement in the true sense of the word, it called to mind a sky of saturated magenta and amber tones at dusk. The control of the orchestra was evident in the many dynamic dips and swells. Renes adjusted his style from the podium to manoeuvre the push and pull within the sweeping phrases.

The symphony came to a thundering conclusion with the bombastic Allegro Vivace finale. This movement provided an opportunity for the orchestra to flex its muscles at the absolute upper end of its dynamic range. During this filmic and rousing final stretch, the brass section come to the fore.

It was a bolstering experience to see Melbourne Symphony Orchestra so match-fit, despite the turbulence of the past two months. We can only hope they are not given an enforced break from the stage any time soon.