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Rachmaninov: The Symphonies

by Sergey Rachmaninov

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Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)

Symphonies Nos. 1–3
Symphonic Dances, Op. 40
The Bells, Op. 35
The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29

Concertgebouw Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy


Recorded: 11/1980 (No. 3), 9/1981 (No. 2), 8/1982 (No. 1), 1/1983 (Opp. 29 & 45) and 11/1984 (Op. 35), Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.

Decca [1998]. 3CD. 76.15+76.09+78.15. Liner notes signed “DECCA 1998”.

CD 1:
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13

[1] I. Grave – Allegro ma non troppo [13.10]
[2] II. Allegro animato [7.44]
[3] III. Allegretto [8.53]
[4] IV. Allegro con fuoco [12.38]
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
[5] I. Non allegro [11.19]
[6] II. Andante con moto (Tempo di valse) [8.53]
[7] III. Lento assai – Allegro vivace [13.29]

CD 2:
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

[1] I. Largo – Allegro moderato [18.04]
[2] II. Allegro molto [9.37]
[3] III. Adagio [14.21]
[4] IV. Allegro vivace [13.03]
[5] The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 [20.56]

CD 3:
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44

[1] I. Lento – Allegro moderato [17.01]
[2] II. Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro vivace [12.35]
[3] III. Allegro [12.16]
The Bells, Op. 35
[4] I. Allegro ma non tanto [6.15]*
[5] II. Lento [11.03]**
[6] III. Presto [8.20]
[7] IV. Lento lugubre [10.36]***

Ryszard Karczykowski, tenor*
Natalia Troitskata, soprano**
Tom Krause, baritone***
Chorus of the Concertgebouw Orchestra [CD 3: 4-7]

============================================

Stupendous bargain – and a lot more!

Rachmaninoff seems to suffer from the Liszt Syndrome these days. His piano works are universally admired and among the most often performed and recorded in the standard repertoire. Yet his symphonic works (without piano!) seem to suffer an ill-deserved neglect.

How monstrously ill-deserved this neglect really is can be determined by listening to these three discs which are now old enough to be offered at the price of one! Since this (shame on me!) was my introduction to this part of Rachmaninoff's oeuvre, there will be no comparative analyses here. I only want to emphasise the fact that for the price of one disc you get three, containing nearly four hours of music, including three ''ordinary'' symphonies (Nos. 1-3) and three additional works by no means less powerful and moving: the haunting tone poem The Isle of the Dead, the strange and beautiful Symphonic Dances in three movements, and the choral symphony The Bells for soprano, tenor, baritone, choir and orchestra in four parts.

None of these works is without merit, even the youthful First Symphony which Rachmaninoff composed but 22 years old and which was such a massive fiasco at its premiere that the future great composer lapsed into three years of depression and creative impotence. As a matter of fact, a great deal of this music is either beautiful beyond words or original beyond criticism, with brooding melodic richness and masterful orchestration which are entirely Rachmaninovian. It is true that Rachmaninoff matured more slowly as an orchestral composer – the First Symphony is hardly as memorable as the Five Piano Pieces Op. 3 composed even earlier – but this is not to say that later in life he did not create orchestral masterpieces worthy of more frequent performance and recording than they are given nowadays. One may search – and even find – in these vast and mysterious works hints of Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner and Mahler, but the music remains unmistakably and utterly Rachmaninovian.

As for the sound quality, I don't understand the complaints of some people. We have here a great orchestra (Concertgebouw), a fine conductor (Vladimir Ashkenazy), one of the leading labels as far as orchestral sound is concerned (DECCA) and digital recordings of all pieces (DDD, 1980–84). It is true, of course, that many early digital recordings do suffer from glossy and glassy surface in combination with painful lack of sonority, but if there is something like this here, I don't hear it.

The set comes with an interesting booklet too, signed only with ''DECCA 1998'' unfortunately. There is some dull technical stuff and some of the biographical background might have been less neglected, but the one essay (in English, German and French) has a number of fascinating points which will surely make this not-so-easy-to-understand music much more accessible. For example, there is one compelling comment on the famous plainchant ''Dies Irae'' and how it pervades not only Rachmaninoff's First Symphony but every major work of his; later several examples are pointed out, such as one in the finale of the Third Symphony. Another fascinating detail is that the first movement of Symphonic Dances employs a solo saxophone and, more remarkably, in its end the ''motto theme'' of the First Symphony is quoted. Such bits are to my mind valuable for they give a unique insight into Rachmaninoff's mind and how it was expressed in his symphonic works. The liner notes also refute the old chestnut about Rachmaninoff's creative block during his years of exile after 1917.

Of course the booklet also includes all lyrics from The Bells. These are verses by Edgar Allan Poe in Russian translations/adaptations by the poet Konstantin Balmont. Unfortunately, but expectedly, the Russian text is given only in hideous transliteration which is doubtless easier for people from the West, who generally have a great aversion to Cyrillic texts, but for those who don't this Latinized spelling is difficult to understand. Nevertheless, it is still possible to follow the singing. The English original as well as French and German translations are also given.

If you love Rachmaninoff's piano works – and who doesn't, save Alfred Brendel? – but are new to his symphonic output, this is the perfect set for you. Whatever faults it may or may not have in terms of sound or interpretation, they are fully compensated by a ridiculously cheap price and a wonderful comprehensiveness. You can always get another collection later. Just about the only negative thing about this one is that it doesn't include the famous Vocalise – then again, there is simply not enough space for it. The only annoying thing about the presentation is a glaring error in Rachmaninoff's years of birth and death: 1875-1945. So, by way of conclusion, the correct life span (once again) plus the years of composition; all works but one come from Rachmaninoff's maturity, and it shows:

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)

Symphony No. 1 (1895)
Symphony No. 2 (1907)
The Isle of the Dead (1909)
The Bells (1912-13)
Symphony No. 3 (1935-36)
Symphonic Dances (1940) ( )
  Waldstein | Nov 4, 2017 |
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