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ClassicsOnline Home » RACHMANINOV: Symphonic Dances / The Isle of the Dead
By Ralph Moore
By Bruce Surtees
American Record Guide
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)
Symphonic Dances, Op.45
The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29
Sergey Rachmaninov was among the greatest pianists of the first half of the twentieth century. It was largely through political circumstances that he was forced in the years after the Russian revolution to earn a living for himself and his family in the concert hall, rather than as a composer, making use of his phenomenal technique and powers of musical concentration as a performer.
Born in 1873, Rachmaninov moved with his family to St. Petersburg in 1882 and there began to at tend the Conservatory, with such poor results in general subjects that he was sent; instead, to Moscow, where he lodged with a teacher at the Conservatory, Nikolay Zverev, a hard task-master. It was in Moscow that he completed his formal musical education as a pianist and as a composer. After some initial success and a promising beginning to his career came the shock of the reception of his First Symphony in St. Petersburg, in a performance conducted by Glazunov, who was drunk at the time, according to his wife's later account of the matter. The work was not well played and to make matters worse Cesar Cui, veteran composer of the so-called Mighty Handful of Russian nationalist composers, described it in the most scathing terms as a product "of some student at a conservatory in Hell asked to write a version of the Seven Plagues of Egypt". It took a later course of psychotherapy by hypnosis to encourage Rachmaninov to return to composition and to complete his Second Piano Concerto, a work that has become one of the most popular in the repertoire.
In these years before the revolution of 1917 and his departure abroad, Rachmaninov was earning himself a significant reputation as a conductor and composer, as well as in the role of pianist. The second of his three symphonies was completed in 1907, followed in 1909 by the symphonic poem Die Toteninsel, the Isle of the Dead. The latter was based on a well-known painting, or rather a black-and-white reproduction of a painting, by the Swiss-German artist Arnold Boecklin, the leading German Romantic painter of the late nineteenth century. The picture shows Charon, the ferryman of the dead of Greek mythology, who rows the dead across the River Styx on their journey to the Underworld and to the crags and cliffs of the ominous Island of the Dead of Boecklin's imagination.
In the symphonic poem Rachmaninov makes constant use of fragments of the traditional plainchant Dies irae, a hymn that for centuries had formed part of the Catholic Requiem Mass and had inevitable associations with death in the minds of its hearers, associations exploited by Berlioz and Liszt among others in the nineteenth century, and elsewhere by Rachmaninov himself, notably in the popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Here the listener may imagine Charon rowing his boat with its passengers across to the Toteninsel, their arrival provoking a musical climax. As Charon returns to the hither shore, the music subsides once more into the ghostly stillness with which it had begun.
In 1917 Rachmaninov left Russia, settling first in Copenhagen, before accepting offers from the United States, where he took up residence in 1919. In subsequent years he travelled widely in a taxing series of concert tours, dividing his time between America and Europe, and from 1930 spending much time at his new villa near Lucerne in Switzerland. The Symphonic Dances were written towards the end of Rachmaninov's career, in the autumn of 1940, after a summer spent at an estate on Long Island. He had the idea that they might be used for a new ballet by his friend Fokin, but the latter's death in 1942 put an end to that. The three movements of the Symphonic Dances form in themselves what is virtually a symphony. The opening dance, which may remind us of elements in Prokofiev's score for Romeo and Juliet, has an intense melody for alto saxophone in its central section, and includes a closing reference to the disastrous First Symphony. Rachmaninov had intended the first dance to represent Mid-day. The second was Twilight, and the third Midnight. Certainly Twilight brings its ghosts, figures in some haunted waltz, while Midnight struggles between Death, represented by the Dies irae of the Catholic sequence for the dead, and the triumphant Allelujah from the Russian liturgy, with which this, the composer's last work, ends.
The distinguished Mexican conductor Enrique Bátiz has enjoyed considerable international success, with performances in England, Germany, South America and in North America at the New York Carnegie Hall and Baltimore Opera. At Carnegie Hall he directed a gala concert celebrating the centenary of the concert hall, in homage to Leonard Bernstein, and in Baltimore a production of Carmen greeted with considerable critical enthusiasm. Enrique Bátiz has conducted over 125 different orchestras. From 1983 to 1989 he was Musical Director of the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra, preceded by a period from 1971 to 1983 as director of the Mexican State Symphony Orchestra, a position he resumed in 1990. Since 1984 he has been Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London. Born in 1942, Enrique Bátiz made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of five. He studied at the Methodist University in Dallas and at the Juilliard School in New York, followed by further study in Warsaw, where he discovered his true vocation as a conductor.
Enrique Bátiz has made some hundred digital recordings, 32 of them with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, nine with the London Symphony Orchestra and twelve with the London Philharmonic, in addition to recordings with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and with his own orchestras in Mexico. He remains one of the leading conductors of Latin America.
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was created by Sir Thomas Beecham three weeks before its first concert, which took place in the Davis Hall, Croydon, on 15th September, 1946. The orchestra was initially associated with the Royal Philharmonic Society and involved in the Society's subscription concert series, later earning for itself the title "Royal", when this association came to an end. Beecham gave his last concert with the orchestra in 1960 and was succeeded by Rudolf Kempe, who became principal conductor on Beecham's death the following year. The orchestra has from the beginning been involved in recording, with a major international reputation supported by foreign tours and by association with conductors and soloists of the greatest distinction.
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