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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909)
The Isle of the Dead, Symphonic Poem, Op. 29 (1908)
Andreas Jetter (piano)
Philarmonia Moldova/Dietrich Scholler-Manno
Recorded at the Concert Hall of Lasi State Philharmonic, Romania, live recordings Sept 1997; Feb 1999 DDD


These two works were written close together during a time when the composer was in the throes of leaving Russia. He was about to begin the adventure of visiting the United States for the first of several concert tours.

Between the years 1906 and 1908, Rachmaninov lived in exiled seclusion in Dresden, Germany. A refugee from his many activities in Russia as a pianist and a regular conducting post, Rachmaninov had come to Germany to devote himself to composition. In a gallery, he saw the oil painting the Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) the Swiss symbolist painter. The painting depicts tall, ghostly cypresses and menacing cliffs, brooding over the Stygian waters, on which they are approached by a gaunt boatman conveying a flag-draped coffin and a lonely mourner. Böcklin had painted several versions of the Isle of the Dead scene. Authorities seem unable to agree on exactly which painting Rachmaninov saw and where he saw it. I understand that Rachmaninov's preference was for a black and white reproduction of the Böcklin painting. The fact is that Rachmaninov was inspired by the dark and disturbing scene and set it to music in his tone-poem: The Isle of the Dead, which was premièred in Moscow in 1909.

The Isle of the Dead is an exceptionally fine work which should be better known. Personally, I find it far more satisfying than any of the symphonies. The score's resonant dark colours and the rocking and swaying recreate the painting's atmosphere: the slow crossing of the boat with coffin and mourner, the eerie silence, a complete sense of desolation and the murky, mist-shrouded and mysterious island. The effect is a perfectly judged combination of seascape and dream imagery, impelled from the lower depths of the orchestra. Rachmaninov subtly weaves the plainchant of his personal Dies irae motif within the score.

This live recording is well played with no suggestion of routine; however it lacks the subtlety and much of the tension of more eminent versions. The violins of the Philarmonia Moldova are in particularly splendid form; the violin is after all the conductor's speciality. The brass and woodwind, it must be said, do not create the same effect. With regard to the sound quality, it is not always easy to differentiate between the various sections of the orchestra.

Incidentally, on the front cover of the CD booklet the work is described rather carelessly as, ‘The Isle of the Death'.

There are two exceptionally fine versions of Rachmaninov's tone-poem The Isle of the Dead in the catalogues. The accounts from Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on Decca 430 733-2 (coupling: Symphonic Dances, op. 45) and from the Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra on DG 463 075-2 (coupling: Symphony No. 1) are both worthy of unreserved recommendation.

Rachmaninov composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor largely at Ivanovka, the Russian ancestral estate of the Rachmaninov family, during the summer of 1909; although its conception probably dates back a few years earlier. The composer visited the United States of America the same year for the first of his many concert tours and premièred the work at New York's New Theater.

The concerto marks a new phase in Rachmaninov's writing. He imbeds his emotion more deeply into the music and his solo piano writing is more integrated with the orchestra. There is little competition between the soloist and the orchestra but rather mutual support. For several years the general public, on a popular radio station, have been voting for Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 as their favourite of all the classical music works. However many Rachmaninov aficionados consider the Piano Concerto No. 3 to be the finest of the four.

Initially I was having problems listening to this recording. This live performance takes some getting familiar with mainly owing to the unusual nature of the sound. On one of my CD players the sound quality was such that I had to change machines for improved sonics; I'm still unsure of the actual reason. Although the playing of soloist Andreas Jetter is vividly captured, the sound picture is such that not all of the closely recorded orchestral accompaniment is audible. This excellent performance is commanding and authoritative and has grown on me with repeated plays. In Jetter's nicely moulded and spontaneous approach he thankfully avoids deliberately accentuate the main melodies. This cannot be said of many other accounts. On one or two occasions, it felt as if the conductor allowed the orchestra to fall behind the soloist; not uncommon in this difficult and rewarding score.

My premier recommendation for the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 is the thrilling live version from Martha Argerich, with the Berlin RSO under Riccardo Chailly on Philips 446 673-2 (coupling: Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1).

Michael Cookson

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