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Essential Rachmaninoff

By Gary Barton

It is nothing short of astonishing that two 20th century Russian composer/pianists could have so much in common yet have produced music so completely different. The two shared the same given name; their lives overlapped by 52 years; they attended the Moscow Conservatory and even had some of the same teachers; each had a comfortable childhood, at least economically, and came from a family with a notable musical background; and both were musical prodigies. Each man earned international fame and fortune, toured widely as a performer and spent parts of his life in America. Yet their paths diverged so extremely that their music seems to come from entirely different periods of musical history. One was by nature solemn and introverted while the other was ebullient and mercurial. One wore muted colors but the other once appeared on Red Square wearing black and white checkered trousers and a bright yellow sportcoat. Each was an expatriate, but one returned to his homeland for his last days. Both shared the same passion, automobiles.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was born nearly two decades before Sergei Prokofiev, in 1873. He was until his dying day a composer in the 19th century Romantic tradition; his music continues from where Tchaikovsky left off. He met Tchaikovsky while a student. The elder man openly expressed his admiration for Rachmaninoff's early compositions. Sergei Prokofiev, discussed in another article in this series, took off headlong on his own. He was, in fact, referred to in his student days as a "futurist" and he wrote music that was baffling to much of the public.

Prokofiev had a caustic and sarcastic wit and has been psychologically described as "obsessive compulsive." Rachmaninoff suffered a far more severe and debilitating mental disorder. In Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, published by Simon & Schuster, author and world recognized authority Kay Redfield Jamison includes Rachmaninoff in Appendix B, "Writers, Artists, and Composers With Probable Cyclothymia, Major Depression, Or Manic Depressive Illness" along with, (did you guess?) Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky!

As one of the most distinguished students in the history of the Moscow Conservatory, Rachmaninoff graduated at the top of his class, even though he finished the 4-year program in only 3 years. His skill as a pianist was recognized; he'd written an opera (Aleko was composed in a month), some songs and his first piano concerto; and he won the school's highest honor, something like "the gold medal of all gold medals." Alexander Siloti was his keyboard instructor, who in turn had been a favorite pupil of Franz Liszt. Rachmaninoff's name was quite literally carved into the marble tablet of the Moscow Conservatory. At 19, this genius wrote a piece called Prelude in c-sharp minor, a double-edged sword that would not only pave the way for a brilliant future but also haunt him and dog at his heels for the rest of his life.

Then the tide began to turn. A performance of the first movement of his Piano Concerto No. 1 met with mixed response. His Symphony No. 1 was performed in St. Petersburg, not the congenial Moscow. It was not successful and the reviewers were merciless. Rachmaninoff withdrew both pieces and fell into a deep depression. He never returned to the symphony and by some accounts went so far as to destroy the score. The concerto lay dormant until he revised it extensively in 1917.

Rachmaninoff's lifelong love of plainchant and his obsession with the Dies Irae (Day of Reckoning) are already apparent as quotations in each movement of the Symphony No. 1. The broadly negative critical response to this work could therefore have been a double blow of fate, all the more reason to cause Rachmaninoff to give up composing (he still continued to concertize) for three years. It was only through working with a neurologist who used hypnosis and auto-suggestion to help him out of his deep depression (he kept repeating to the composer, "You will write your concerto - You will write your concerto - You will work with great facility - Your concerto will be of excellent quality…"), curb his excessive consumption of alcohol and get back to pen and paper that Rachmaninoff regained his compositional impulse. The result was the Piano Concerto No. 2, which Rachmaninoff dedicated to Doctor Dahl, who had treated Rachmaninoff without charge. Rachmaninoff nonetheless suffered recurrent bouts with severe depression for the rest of his life.

By 1900, Rachmaninoff was back on track with the success of this second piano concerto. He moved to a small estate on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland after marrying his cousin Natalya Satina. A few years later, he toured the United States for the first time, gaining much fame and popularity and taking with him Piano Concerto No. 3. Delighted with his success, he accumulated enough money to buy an automobile. He was intrigued by the novelty of this new invention and loved to drive around the countryside.

Following the Revolution in 1917, Rachmaninoff left Russia permanently, moving eventually to New York in 1935. He was twice offered the position of conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but refused. Much of his later years were taken up with performances. As well as being an outstanding composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the most outstanding pianists of his age. He was able to memorize long and demanding pieces almost at once, his tone was incredibly warm and appealing and he brought clarity to the most complicated works. His reach was very large: his left hand could span a twelfth.

Sergei Rachmaninoff died in Beverly Hills on March 28, 1943, shortly after having become an American citizen.

The Essential Rachmaninoff

Some say Glazunov was drunk when he conducted the premiere performance of the Symphony No. 1 (a state not unusual for him in light of Shostakovich's Memoirs: Testimony). Cesar Cui, critic, composer and expert on military fortifications (!) described the work as "…a programme symphony on the Seven Plagues of Egypt." You can listen to the work and judge for yourself. For the budget minded, the best buy here is the London three-CD set of the complete Rachmaninoff symphonies with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (London/Decca 455798). The set also contains performances of The Bells to texts by Edgar Allen Poe and the ultra-gloomy Isle of the Dead, which describes a painting by Arnold Böcklin.

The unidentified program annotator for the liner notes that come with this set has written this about the Symphony No. 1: "'Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.' What exactly Rachmaninoff implied by inscribing this quotation from Romans XII on the score of his Symphony No. 1 has never been satisfactorily explained. What it does demonstrate beyond all mistaking is the inadvisability of tempting Providence…for the victim of the Lord's vengeance in this case was none other than Rachmaninoff himself. The dedication provides a clue: A. L. was Anna Aleksandrovna Lodizhenshaya, a woman of gypsy extraction whose husband had been the dedicatee of Rachmaninoffs Capriccio on Gypsy Themes; and the quotation from Romans is also affixed to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which tells the story of a passionate young woman married to a much older man. Is there a link between the two Annas? Such a motivation would certainly explain something of the symphony's fiery turbulence."

Amother a budget introduction to Rachmaninoff's music for the listener with no prior experience with his output is called "The Best of Rachmaninoff," is Naxos 556682. There are no complete large scale works here but rather just snippets, i.e. the Moderato movement of his Piano Concerto No. 2; Variations 18-24 from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; the Adagio movement of the Symphony No. 2; the second of the Symphonic Dances (there are three in all); and the Allegro ma non tanto of the Piano Concerto No.3. There are complete performances of "Vocalise" from Songs, Op. 34 and the famed Prelude in c sharp minor as well as the Prelude in g minor.

Preferred is Philips 438383 "The Best of Rachmaninoff," which comes in an attractively priced 2-CD set. It contains complete entire works, not just the "hooks," including the Piano Concerto No. 2, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (based on that composer's 15th solo violin Caprice), the Symphony No. 2, and "Vocalise" from Songs, Op. 34 (here on piano rather than cello, as is the case with the aforementioned Naxos disc). You'll also get The Isle of the Dead and Fritz Kreisler's Liebeslied ("Love's Sorrow") in Rachmaninoff's keyboard setting. Rounding out the set is the same pair of preludes as on the Naxos CD. The total playing time is 2 hours 32 minutes versus 1 hour 15 minutes on the Naxos. As you might guess, the performers on the Philips are more renowned and include pianists Rafael Orozco and Zoltan Kocsis as well as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, both conducted by Edo de Waart. Christopher Field's essay "Mr. C Sharp Minor- Sergei Rachmaninoff," which comes with the set, is an excellent guide to biographical information on the composer. It begins, "Young man," said the Russian playwright Anton Chekov, "I see a brilliant future written on your face."

If you are already somewhat familiar with Rachmaninoff's music, I have several "must have" additions to your library. I've already mentioned the London complete symphonies recording. Also a must is the Symphonic Dances. My favorite recording of the orchestral version features the St. Petersburg Orchestra conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, (RCA 62710). The disc also contains the overture to Rachmaninoff's earliest success, Aleko, as well as Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The excellent piano soloist is Dmitri Alexeev.

The Symphonic Dances originated as a work for two pianos, and it is reported that late in life Rachmaninoff and Vladimir Horowitz, another mighty pianist, took delight in playing the three movements for their own enjoyment at one or the other's home without an audience. The two-piano version bears titles for the three movements - "Noon", "Twilight" and "Midnight" - which Rachmaninoff dropped from the orchestral score. Emanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman give a fine performance of the two piano version on Sony 61767. This CD also contains the Suite No. 2 for two Pianos, Op. 17 as well as the Suite No. 1 "Fantaisie-tableaux" for two pianos. The latter draws its inspiration from four poetic fragments that are titled "Barcarole," "A Night for Love," "Tears" (you can virtually hear the teardrops falling), and finally "Russian Easter," which mightily evokes the sound of cathedral bells in a complex pattern of tolling, that was inspired by a line from Byron, "Make music to the lonely ear…"

If you have been following this series of articles, you know of my enthusiasm for "surround sound" and the new SACD format, which requires special equipment for 5.1 Surround, but when labeled "Hybrid" will play on both normal CD players and SACD outfits. The Pentatone 5186 114 SACD of Rachmaninoff's music features pianist Werner Haas with the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Frankfurt conducted by Eliahu Inbal playing the Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. If you don't have an SACD player yet, buy this disc for the future. Beyond the exciting experiencing of being in the middle of the music, these are two superb performances. I learned new aspects of both pieces from the discs, and like the CD so well I'm listening to it as I type this into my computer.

The Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 4 are available with Phillipe Entremont and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy (Sony 89962). However, I prefer a more contemporary recording I found at Joseph Beth that features Nikolai Lugansky playing Piano Concertos No. 1 and No. 3 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo (Warner Classics 47941). Recorded in 2002, this has some distinct digital improvements to the sound on the Entremont recording. You can buy all four concertos in one set with Vladimir Askenazy as soloist and the London Symphony Orchestra with Andre Previn conducting (London/Decca 444839). For historical perspective and a chance to hear Rachmaninoff himself as soloist there is RCA 61658. He performs on these early recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by either Eugene Ormandy or Leopold Stokowski. (Stokowski did a fabulous orchestration of "Russian Easter" from the first Suite for Two Pianos that is out of print but worth scouting for.)

I also purchased EMI 62810, which contains exciting performances of the Symphony No. 3 and Symphonic Dances played by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra under the able direction of Mariss Jansons.

As the Dies Irae theme appears in almost every important work he wrote, it's a fine experience to listen to Rachmaninoff's liturgical music. Here again I highly recommend a Pentatone Hybrid SACD Multi Channel that I discovered (Pentatone PTC 5186 027) while searching for material for this article. The CD is a collection of his Vespers, Op. 37 with the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, Nicolai Korniev conducting. It will expose you to yet another beautiful facet of Rachmaninoff's complex musical persona. For a generous sample of the type of music that inspired Rachmaninoff early in his life, and for that matter throughout it, I recommend "Russian Orthodox Church Music," a 4-channel recording in the Hybrid SACD format with tenor Nicolai Gedda and the Russian Orthodox Cathedral Choir of Paris conducted by Eugene Evetz on Pentatone PTC 5186 115, recorded in 1975. From the middle of the 19th century until the revolution, numerous great Russian composers (including Arensky, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff) were composing sacred music.

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.


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