When Rachmaninov came to America in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, he had little beside his family and his talent. Confronted with the need to make money quickly, he eschewed composition and conducting and went on long concert tours as a pianist. It was not until 1926 that he felt secure enough to take a break and start writing again. His first post-exile work, the Fourth Piano Concerto, was premiered in 1927 with the composer as soloist and Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Its public and critical reception was chilly at best. Though Rachmaninov later revised it and rewrote the third movement, the Fourth Concerto has never really gained a foothold in the repertory. It could be that the tone is cooler and more remote than we expect from Rachmaninov -- this is, after all, the work of an exile picking up a lost thread -- or that the structure in the outer movements is harder to grasp. Or maybe it's just that its melodies aren't as memorable. In the hands of an inspired virtuoso, however, the concerto will yield its melancholy secrets.
The opening Allegro vivace (Alla breve) gets off to a dramatic start with an ascending crescendo from the orchestra and a grand chordal theme from the soloist that searches for a while before finding its home key. This theme and a restless, lyric second subject are developed in rhapsodic manner, reaching a great, extended climax before the movement's abrupt close. The main theme of the wistful and nostalgic Largo is in fact memorable, restlessly restated in a series of different keys. It crashes directly in the Allegro vivace finale, which in its whirlwind virtuosity and rhythmic instability recalls the finale of the First Concerto, albeit through the prism of regretful hindsight. Near the end the climactic material of the first movement returns, ushering in a brilliant coda expressing a hard-won optimism.