In constant demand
as both a pianist and conductor, Sergei Rachmaninov found precious
little time for composition. One of his more fertile periods
came when in 1906 he resigned a position at the Bolshoi Opera
in Moscow and moved his family to Dresden. During this period
he composed his second (and in my opinion finest) symphony,
and the haunting tone poem, The Isle of the Dead,
by the painting of the same name (1886) by Arnold Böcklin
(1827-1901). The painting depicts a rocky island rising out
of the sea,
and a boatman rowing his small craft containing only himself
and a mysteriously shrouded figure toward an entry gate.
In a brilliant
musical maneuver, Rachmaninov portrays the only hint of motion
in the painting through the use of a persistent rhythmic figure
in 5/8 time. After this opening gesture, the music roars to
a climax with the full large orchestra, which is followed by
a tranquil section that might represent an actual funeral service.
The melody begins to hint at the first phrase of the plainchant Dies
from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, a device
which Rachmaninov would use time and again throughout his composing
In spite of its
austere title, this work, at times stark and brooding, is
also warm ... even inviting. It is rife with the kind of lush
and sweeping melody that made Rachmaninov one of the last
of the great romantics. This is a performance that exceeds
expectations. Vladimir Jurowski leads a beautifully paced
performance capped with lovingly shaped phrases. His reading
compares to the Ashkenazy/Philharmonia reading on Philips
and the Jansons/St Petersburg Philharmonic performance on EMI
terms of both depth of interpretation and the solid, well
disciplined orchestral sound. The warm inviting tone is so
you almost feel physically embraced by it, as if there were
a literal blanket of music wrapping itself around you. The
performance is mood altering and glorious, and then ... that
wonderful moment is annihilated with about fifteen seconds
of utterly needless applause. Good heavens, what were the
producers thinking? OK, we all know that one of the most economic
for an orchestra to be heard on disc is to record their best
live concerts, but why trash such a beautifully crafted moment
by keeping the applause in? Sheesh! Bah! Fie!
For the last quarter
century of his life, after his permanent departure from his
native Russia, Rachmaninov had even less time available for
composing, having to support himself and his family with constant
concerts and tours. There are but a handful of works from this
period. One of the majors is the Symphonic Dances,
in New York while the composer was recovering from surgery.
Originally for two pianos, he later orchestrated them as
a showpiece for Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra,
which gave the first performance in 1941.
the works not to be symphonic in their formal structure,
but rather in their size and scope. They are broad powerful
brilliantly orchestrated and include a major theme from the
alto saxophone, a somewhat unusual gesture, even today. The
marvel of this composer’s music is his ability successfully
to juxtapose sheer power and virtuosity with melodies so
gorgeous that they almost belong in a movie love scene.
captures both sides of the composer with great flair. This
too is a most excellent performance, although the audience
noise is more prevalent in this work than in the first, and
this becomes a bit of an annoyance. In particular he gets a
very fine string sound, reminiscent of what used to come from
Ormandy and Stokowski. Wind playing is also superb, with the
aforementioned alto saxophone solo coming off very well indeed.
Brass is crisp and never overpowering, but when they need to
turn up the heat, they do so to thrilling effect.
Again, the final
movement is marred by applause, although it seems a bit more
fitting since this piece ends with a bang. This series from
the London Philharmonic holds a great deal of potential, especially
when the orchestra is in the hands of such an able conductor.
But please, leave the cheering in the concert hall, and let
us enjoy some great music-making at home, with the appropriate
silence following the last bar, so that we might decide ourselves
how to react!