INKPOT#103: RACHMANINOV Orchestral Works. Various/Ashkenazy (Decca)

Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Orchestral Works

Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44
The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29
The Bells, Op. 35
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

Natalia Troitskaya soprano
Ryszard Karczykowski tenor
Tom Krause baritone
Concertgebouw Orchestra and Chorus

conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy

DECCA (Capbox) 455 798-2
3 discs [230:39] budget-price

by Jonathan Yungkans

Sergei Rachmaninov loved the orchestra, and wrote for it brilliantly. It is no accident that five of the six pieces Rachmaninov composed after leaving Russia use the orchestra in one way or another.

This collection was assembled as a 60th birthday tribute to Vladimir Ashkenazy. It is music that Ashkenazy obviously loves, and that passion spurred both he and the Concertgebouw Orchestra to what are still some of his best recordings to date, in sound that stands up well today.

The symphonies are available separately as a Double Decca (448116), but the other three masterworks on this set are more than worth the very small amount of additional cash. Also, Decca has reshuffled the works on these discs, coming up with a sequence that is both highly satisfying and thought-provoking in their juxtapositions.
Disc 1:
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

There are serious illnesses and deadly blows from fate which change a man’s character. This was the effect of my own Symphony upon myself. When the indescribable torture of this performance had at last come to an end, I was a different man

– Sergei Rachmaninov
describing the premiere of his First Symphony

The tie that binds the two works on this disc is the motto theme of the First Symphony. Used throughout the symphony as an ide fixe, it also appears, much changed, many years later in the coda of the first Symphonic Dance. These are two of Rachmaninov’s dynamic, rhythmically charged works, and having them together on the same disc was an inspired idea.

The First Symphony’s premiere on March 27, 1897 was a disaster, precipitating the most venomous reviews of Rachmaninov’s career; one especially infamous posting by Cesar Cui still makes Pitts Sanborn’s scathing 1927 review of the Fourth Piano Concerto seem like a minor rebuke. Rachmaninov suffered a complete nervous breakdown and contemplated suicide on more than once occasion. A side-effect of this breakdown was a near-total compositional block, which lasted until Dr. Nicolai Dahl treated him in 1900.

The First Symphony is neither the totally incompetent composition the critics in 1897 made it out to be, nor is it a totally unblemished masterpiece. Had Rachmaninov’s mentor Tchaikovsky been alive to shepherd him through this piece, he probably would have helped the composer better shape it and make it more effective. But despite its flaws and occasional awkwardness, there is much in the symphony that is fascinating and occasionally eloquent.

Ashkenazy’s performance matches the volatile character of this piece, bringing it roaring into life. No other performance captures the passion and power of this piece so well, nor allows its quieter moments to sing so tenderly. It is by far the finest of Ashkenazy’s recordings of the three symphonies, and should not be missed.

Contrary to some stories, Rachmaninov did not destroy the score of the First Symphony after the premiere. According to his cousin Sophia Satin, he wanted for many years to revise the piece, but was not ready to face it. Unfortunately, the score disappeared when Rachmaninov fled Russia in 1917 – a loss he bitterly regretted to the end of his life.

What would have happened had Rachmaninov lived another 10 years and had the chance to fulfill his wish? The orchestral parts to the symphony were discovered in St. Petersburg several months after the composer’s death, and he had planned to retire from the concert stage after the 1942-43 season, so he would have had time to revise the symphony had he chosen to do so. Perhaps the score would have turned out much like the Symphonic Dances – rhythmically alive and colorful, but with a keen sense of structure and dramatic thrust.

Again, Ashkenazy and the Concertgebouw Orchestra give a masterly performance, seething with vitality and pulsing with a thoroughly Russian heart. No other recording captures the volcanic aspect of this work quite so well; no other conductor peers as deeply into the dark, Mahlerian corners of the second-movement waltz, nor made the transition in the third movement from midnight-black depression to blazing light such an overwhelming and natural leap of faith.

It is performances like this one that make one seriously question why this composition is not heard more frequently than it is. Perhaps it is because not many others can measure up to this one.
Disc 2:
Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op. 27
The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29

As for the quality of these things, I must say that the worst of all is the Symphony. When I get it written and then correct my first symphony I give my solemn word – no more symphonies.

– Sergei Rachmaninov
letter to Nikita Morozov, April 1907

If many of the people who have since heard the Second Symphony now read those words, they would be convinced the composer did not know what he was talking about. The symphony has become one of the most popular of his compositions, after the Second and Third Piano Concertos. Expansively scaled, opulently orchestrated, it is considered the epitome of the Romantic symphony.

Ashkenazy’s performance of this piece is less volatile than his traversal of the First Symphony, as befits the character of this work – but not by much. However, this is one piece that does not react well to being rushed, and Ashkenazy is sometimes too impatient.

When he lets the music breathe, it soars, but when he hurries things along, as in the quicker parts of the Scherzo, the music comes crashing back to earth – hard. Also, the clarinet solo that opens the Adagio is somewhat flat. While the orchestra recovers enough to pull off this movement admirably, that misstep places a slight pall on the proceedings.

Many listeners will be perfectly happy with this performance – and, despite my comments, it is one of the best performances of this symphony now available. However, for those willing to spend a little more money, they would do well to supplement this set with Andre Previn’s recording of the Second Symphony with the London Symphony for EMI (66997).

Recently remastered and reissued as a single mid-price disc, the playing and sound on the Previn recording are even more glorious than on Ashkenazy’s. The interpretation has an almost orgasmic release of emotion, and the pacing is absolutely perfect.

The other work on Ashkenazy’s disc, The Isle of the Dead, was inspired by a visit to a Leipzig picture gallery.

There, Rachmaninov viewed Arnold B√∂cklin’s then-striking picture The Isle of the Dead, and was inspired by it to write a darkly fervent tone poem worthy of Richard Strauss.

Beginning softly with a slow rhythm meant to represent Charon’s oars rowing across the river Styx, The Isle of the Dead builds inexorably to two powerful climaxes, one in the major and one in the minor key. In the right hands, the piece can be gripping and ultimately devastating. With Ashkenazy and the Concertgebouw, it is definitely in the right hands. This is perhaps the best performance of the work since those by Koussevitsky and the composer himself.
Disc 3:
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44
The Bells, Op. 35

A composer’s music should express the country of his birth, his love affairs, his religion, the books that have influenced him, the pictures he loves. It should be the sum total of a composer’s experience

– Sergei Rachmaninov

From the Orthodox chant-like horn motif that opens it, the Third Symphony is filled with passages tinged with remembrance and regret that are not only achingly beautiful, but sound “Russian to the marrow” (as Tchaikovsky once described himself). It is an apt self-portrait of its composer, who never returned to his motherland after fleeing in 1917.

At the same time, the symphony is Rachmaninov’s most inventive from a formal standpoint. Written in three movements, with a scherzo inserted within a bittersweet slow movement, as in the Third Piano Concerto, the symphony is full of fascinating ideas, which tumble out one after another as themes are developed.

Ashkenazy’s performance is one of extremes. The quicker passages are very fast, the slower ones glow like burnished gold, and Ashkenazy has a tendency to change speeds as though turning on a dime. This approach can leave a score sounding episodic, but the tremendous excitement Ashkenazy whips up carries the day – with considerable help from the Concertgebouw players, who keep up with him at every bar.

six feet three inches of gloom indeedAs fatalistic as Rachmaninov (right) could be – Igor Stravinsky once called the man “six-feet-three of Russian gloom” – it should be no surprise that, along with Mother Russia, images and stories with dark themes drew his greatest inspiration. Just as with Bocklin’s portrait The Isle of the Dead, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells turned out to be a perfect fit.

In Rachmanonov’s hands, Poe’s ode to the ages of man takes on an intensely Russian cast, to the point where you wonder whether the poet was actually a Slav after all. Rachmaninov later called The Bells his greatest work – with some justification, since he had made Poe’s work so intensely his own.

This is perhaps the high point of Ashkenazy’s set, as well. He gives a thoroughly committed reading, inspiring his forces to outdo themselves. In the process, he secures tremendously evocative playing, underlining each mood and undercurrent of music and text with uncanny precision, from the silver sounds of youth and the golden peal of marriage to the brazen klaxon of terror and the iron funeral knell.

Perhaps Robert Tear is slightly more secure vocally on Andre Previn’s EMI recording (73353) than Ryszard Karczyowski is here, but as much as I enjoyed Sheila Armstrong on the Previn, Natalia Troiskaya’s voice better matches the Russian cast of the music – especially with the voluptuous, heart-wrenching sounds Ashkenazy obtains from the Concertgebouw orchestra and chorus.

Between John-Shirley Quirk (Previn) and Tom Krause (Ashkenazy), it is a toss-up; although Quirk’s diction is better, Krause’s darker tone fits the mood better, as “the hollow bell sobs / and groans through the silent air / slowly proclaiming / the stillness of the grave.”
1. Bertensson, Sergei and Jay Leyda with the assistance of Sophia Satin, Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music (Washington Square: New York University Press, 1956).
Haylock, Julian. Liner Notes for EMI 55188 (Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 1 & 4).
3. Layton, Robert. “From Failure to Success.” Liner notes for Philips 438864 (Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2).
4. Seroff, Victor I. Rachmaninoff (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950).
5. Svejda, Jim. The Insider’s Guide to Classical Recordings: Sixth Revised and Expanded Edition (Rocklin: Prima Publishing, 1999), 569.

773: 21.8.2000 ©Jonathan Yungkans

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