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Sergei RACHMANINOV(1873-1943)
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
1 non allegro
2 andante con moto (tempo di valse)
3 lento assai
Vocalise, Op.34
Etudes-Tableaux (orch. Respighi from Op. 33 and 39)
5 the sea and the seagulls
6 the fair
7 funeral march
8 little red riding hood and the wolf
9 march
Minnesota Orchestra/Eiji Oue
Recorded May/June 2001, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis

The music itself notwithstanding, this disc is about orchestration and sumptuously recorded sound


Of the three pieces, the Symphonic Dances shows that Rachmaninov, in his last work, is still developing his skill in the handling of instrumental colour. The results are masterly. Vocalise, a relatively early work (at seven minutes or less forever doomed to be CD filler fodder) illustrates how far he had travelled, the thick romantic textures contrasting with the confident airiness of the Symphonic Dances. Finally, in the five Etudes-Tableaux we have the chance to hear how another composer skilled in the art of orchestration has set about realising some tricky piano pieces that Rachmaninov wrote around the time of Vocalise.

The meat of this disc is in the Symphonic Dances, a work that started off as potential ballet music but, once Rachmaninov got his teeth into the composition, evolved into a three-movement concert piece of symphonic proportions. It has been recorded many times as one would expect for a natural orchestral showpiece. The trap into which some conductors fall is to treat the work as such - a showpiece. Overindulgence can be the enemy of this work in performance, often at the expense of rhythmic drive and the subtleties of some of the melodic development and transformation which justify the use of "symphonic" in the title. Oue, with the excellent Minnesota Orchestra, avoids the most damaging temptations, maintaining the vitality of the dance aspect, ensuring the cohesion of each movement and at the same time maintaining opulence of sound without hint of romantic slush. The first movement builds well, Oue pointing to the development of the melodic fragments that give the music a natural sense of evolution culminating in the inevitable big tune at the end of the first section. The waltz rhythms of the second movement are one of the means by which Rachmaninov achieves unity in music of great mood and textural contrast and Oue understands this well. More than the other two, the last movement is the one where the showpiece characteristics of the music can lead conductors and orchestras astray but the Minnesota players handle everything Rachmaninov throws at them with confidence, and after the blazing close of the work we can believe, thanks to Oue, that we have heard music that really is "symphonic" and not just a ballet score wheeled out for concert performance.

Conversely, the five Etudes-Tableaux orchestrations were suggested by Koussevitsky as concert pieces where they might just as well have served as a ballet. They do not have the constructional qualities of the Symphonic Dances nor seem to follow the titles closely as far as picture painting is concerned (the original piano pieces had no titles). Rarely recorded, this disc is welcome in providing a chance to hear them played with such commitment, making the most of Respighi’s instrumentation skills. However, one is forced to make comparisons with the Symphonic Dances and to wish that if the job of orchestration had to be done, Rachmaninov had done it himself. Respighi is faithful to the musical text and he is clearly trying to make the pieces sound like Rachmaninov but his rendering, although superbly skilful in a text book sort of way, lacks the inventiveness Rachmaninov would have brought to it. There are many recordings of the two original sets of piano pieces (or selections from them – including Rachmaninov himself in a piano roll version) and maybe that is how they are best heard.

What makes this disc really worth listening to is the sound. Either the engineers have been extremely clever or the acoustic is exceptional (perhaps both). I have not had the privilege of attending a concert in the Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, but if this recording is anything to go by it has the acoustical qualities of the finest venues. The best I do know is the Walthamstow Assembly Hall in North East London where, in seeming contradiction, a warm ambience combines with a clarity and balance that exposes any fudging that may go on in inner parts. The Minnesota Orchestra meets the challenge of a similar acoustic. The sturdy intonation and clean-limbed sound of the strings thrive in their own environment and are a refreshing joy to behold – just listen to the big tune in the Symphonic Dances’ first movement.

If you want a lot of idiomatic Russian punch in the Symphonic Dances as opposed to Oue’s French – type sophistication and control, then you may prefer Mariss Jansons much admired 1993 performance with the St Petersburg Philharmonic. You also get Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony which makes for a heftier offering and, for some, better value. But if you want superb sound with playing to match and the novelty of a Rachmaninov/Respighi collaboration, then this disc is a genuine competitor.

John Leeman



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