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ClassicsOnline Home » RACHMANINOV, S.: Symphony No. 3 / The Isle of the Dead / Vocalise (Philadelphia Orchestra, Rachmaninov) (1929, 1939)
One of the last great Romantic composer-performers, Sergey Rachmaninov was also an experienced conductor, although he left only the three recordings to be found on this album. The Isle of the Dead charts a symphonic journey from life to death relieved by a feeling of sweet nostalgia. Superbly orchestrated and with plenty of emotional fire and lyrical beauty, his Third Symphony was composed for The Philadelphia Orchestra which responds brilliantly to the composer’s personal emphases and impulses. The much-loved Vocalise is heard here in Rachmaninov’s own orchestral guise.
By James McMacarthy
By David Radcliffe
American Record Guide
By Jonathan Woolf
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Symphony No. 3 • Isle of the Dead • Vocalise
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943) may well be considered the last in the line of the great Romantic composer-performers, for he was not only a composer of true distinction, creating lyrical and passionate music, full of moody character, which has long enjoyed adulation and staying-power with the general music-loving public, but was also a commendable and individual pianist (as his numerous recordings in this rôle demonstrate) and an experienced conductor, something less well-known maybe, for although his activity in this area is documented he left only the three recordings to be found on this release.
Rachmaninov was born into a well-to-do family (his father a Captain in the Imperial Guard), but the finances dwindled, and following his parents’ separation, the young Rachmaninov settled with his mother in St Petersburg. This was in 1882. There Rachmaninov had music lessons with his cousin, the pianist Alexander Siloti (perhaps most famous, or infamous, today for editing and heavily cutting Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2). From St Petersburg, in 1885 Rachmaninov travelled to Moscow to study with Nikolay Sverev and, in the following year, he entered the Moscow Conservatory where he continued to study with Siloti and also Arensky and Taneyev. As a composer, Rachmaninov had already put himself on the map with the enduringly popular Prelude in C sharp minor (the second of his Opus 3 piano pieces). By contrast, his Symphony No. 1 (1895) received a critical and public mauling, maybe because the first performance, conducted by the already less than sympathetic Alexander Glazunov (legend has it that he was also drunk), did a disservice to music that Rachmaninov then wished to be suppressed, an experience that was enough to put him off composing for a while but which allowed him to focus on his activities as a pianist and as a conductor.
With the help of psychologist Nikolai Dahl, Rachmaninov regained confidence in his compositional abilities and was able to write his Piano Concerto No. 2, now one of the most popular pieces of its (or any other) kind. Following the Revolution (in 1917) Rachmaninov left Russia with his family, first of all for a concert-tour in Scandinavia, following which the Rachmaninovs sailed for America and to exile from his native country for the rest of his life. And it is in America that we find the composer and conductor for the recordings on this release, all of those that he made as a conductor, all with the great Philadelphia Orchestra, with which he had a particularly productive relationship brought about through his friendship with the orchestra’s music directors of the time, respectively Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy.
Rachmaninov was no stranger to making records; indeed he made enough shellacs to fill ten CDs. The majority of these document his abilities as a pianist and an interpreter, not least of his own music—and include invaluable versions of his four Piano Concertos and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, all with The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted either by Stokowski or Ormandy, and including two versions of the Second Piano Concerto, both with Stokowski, from 1924 and the 1929. Stokowski also conducts the Paganini Rhapsody, while the other concertos are with Ormandy who took over the Philadelphian reins in 1936. Of other composers’ music, there are pieces by Chopin (including the B flat minor ‘funeral march’ Piano Sonata) and Schumann (Carnaval) and examples of Rachmaninov’s work with violinist Fritz Kreisler (sonatas by Beethoven, Grieg and Schubert). Rachmaninov’s death in 1943 robbed us of his recording his final work, the Symphonic Dances, written for The Philadelphia Orchestra and Ormandy (which Ormandy would document, so wonderfully and definitively, in 1960), and with this orchestra and conductor Rachmaninov was scheduled to record Liszt’s Totentanz and Schumann’s Piano Concerto.
In addition to his many recordings as a pianist, Rachmaninov also left us his conducting of three of his orchestral works—the Isle of the Dead, Vocalise, and Symphony No. 3—RCA originals on which the composer conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra. The major works were composed on either side of the Russian Revolution divide. The Isle of the Dead (1909) was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting (of which Rachmaninov had seen a black-and-white print). The composer leads neither a luxurious nor an inflated account of the music, but one that is graduated as a symphonic journey, one that reveals resourceful orchestration to complement a grim narrative of slowly undulating waves on which rows the boatman of death in his unremitting journey. Musically, the main motif of the Isle of the Dead alludes to the plainchant Dies irae (Day of Judgement), which was something of an idée fixe in Rachmaninov’s music, the rhythms equating to lapping waters and the rocking of the boat. The music evokes a shadowy, isolated scene, a journey from life to death, the boat as the conveyer between the two states, with music burdened by morbidity, but sometimes relieved by sweet nostalgia, and developed and climaxed through impassioned outbursts, an amalgam of lugubrious, death-burdened and railing emotions that seems deeply Slav and significant to Rachmaninov.
The popularity of certain pieces of Rachmaninov’s oeuvre—Piano Concertos 2 and 3, Paganini Rhapsody, and Symphony No. 2—tends to overshadow the stature of the Fourth Piano Concerto, Symphonic Dances, and—as recorded here—Symphony No. 3, which was completed in 1936 for The Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting the première in November that year. It is a masterpiece, one that finds the composer in leaner and more economic musical territory, yet with no lack of emotional fire and lyrical beauty; and the orchestration is superb. Rachmaninov’s own conducting of it has its personal emphases and impulses. The first movement includes a requested repeat of the exposition (with lead-back bars), which the composer ignores, further intensifying the movement’s design and which gives an equal length to the three movements (the second combining a nostalgic slow movement with a fantastical scherzo at its mid-point). The virtuoso playing of The Philadelphia Orchestra, in this the first recording of Symphony No. 3, made in 1939, suggests that Rachmaninov was a more than competent maestro in music that has many technical demands, and that he was also unashamed by his own music’s power, passion and beauty, but never indulging it; indeed it often seems confidential. It is both a convincing and instructive performance of a very great symphony, as well as a handsome document of the prowess of The Philadelphia Orchestra at this time, emerging out of the Stokowski era into the Ormandy one, the woodwinds characterful, the strings warm and shimmering.
Vocalise is the fourteenth and last in Rachmaninov’s collection of songs that was published as Opus 34, a song without words, but not without a vowel of the singer’s choice with which to sustain the sad melody. Originally with piano accompaniment, Rachmaninov made arrangements for orchestra (as heard in his own recording presented here) and for soprano and orchestra. Once again the Philadelphian strings find a beauty and sensitivity of response to break the hardest of hearts.
The present collection contains all of Sergey Rachmaninov’s recordings as conductor. The primary sources for the transfers were Victor “Z” pressings for Isle of the Dead and Vocalise, and pre-war Victor “Gold” label pressings for the symphony.
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