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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No.1 in D minor, Op.13 (1897) [45:15]
Symphonic Dances, Op.45 (1943) [35:37]
The Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. September 2018 (Symphonic Dances), June 2019 (Symphony No.1), Kimmel Centre for the Performing Arts, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia
Reviewed as downloaded from digital press preview

To begin the review of a new release of two major symphonic works by a composer of Rachmaninov’s stature with detailed preliminary background may seem unnecessary. However, it seems particularly relevant within the context of the special quality of these live performances from Philadelphia. Recorded a year apart, both works, especially the symphony, are comprehensively explored and nailed, highlighting their close thematic relationship as the robust bookends of Rachmaninov’s symphonic development spanning almost 50 turbulent years.

The first performance of the symphony conducted by Glazunov at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire in March 1897 remains one of the great fiascos in the annals of disastrous musical premieres. Whatever the reasons, the work’s reputation was immediately tainted and it led to a collapse of creative self-confidence in the 24 year-old composer’s development from which it took him three years to recover. However, despite writing to his friend Asafiev saying that his last will and testament would prohibit the symphony from being shown to anyone, Rachmaninov also made it plain that he still believed in the work and wanted to revise it.

Sadly, the MS full score was left behind in Russia, never to be seen again, together with many of Rachmaninov’s other manuscripts when he fled the post-1918 revolutionary civil war. Then in 1945, two years after his death, the original set of orchestral parts was discovered in the library of the Leningrad (previously St. Petersburg) Conservatoire. This enabled a full score to be put together with much help from the composer’s own arrangement for piano 4 hands made concurrently during the composition process. It also included the restoration of the more elaborate original percussion parts, which may have been altered by Glazunov in rehearsal. The second performance of the work took place on 17 October 1945 in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire conducted by Alexander Gauk. Very appropriately, given the long-standing US association between composer, conductor and orchestra, the first performance outside Russia was with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy on 19 March 1948.

As Russian First Symphonies stack up, Rachmaninov’s may have some bumpy transitions and occasional derivative passages that can hang fire, but inventive thematic development and compelling dramatic trajectory supported by rhythmic punch and lyrically soaring music already hit home with the white-hot energy of incipient genius. Although not quite matching the later Prokofiev and Shostakovich Firsts, the young composer certainly rose above those of Balakirev, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, and not least, Glazunov – maybe even just nudging up close to the First of his great mentor, Tchaikovsky.

Originally planned as a ballet for Fokine, called Fantastic Dances, the Symphonic Dances, composed in 1940, consist of three ABA-structured movements that in turn form their own collective triptych. Although Rachmaninov abandoned the individual movement titles Noon, Twilight and Midnight when Fokine hesitated about accepting the project, their specific time references remain influential in the symphonic work subsequently dedicated to Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Already seriously ill, Rachmaninov may have sensed this could be his last work; it certainly represents a considerable leap of symphonic technique, style, concision and orchestration. References to the Dies Irae and chants from the Russian Orthodox tradition are ground-soil throughout his compositions, but citing the motto theme from his then still lost First Symphony at the end of the first dance brings a heart-stopping reminiscence of that same theme in pristine C major, totally transformed from its original grim D minor. No-one but the composer could have fully appreciated its significance when the Symphonic Dances were premiered in 1943. Here it offers benediction and poignancy, but most of all, vindication for the composer’s belief in his earlier work and possibly a clue to why he never revised it. Maybe the softly tolling tam-tam that lifts the curtain on the transformed C major statement of the theme and its crashing strokes that end both Symphony and final Symphonic Dance provide an answer. After all, the composer inscribed “Alliluya” over the closing section of the final dance - “Praise be to God”. Could it be that the Symphonic Dances are in fact a long-gestated transformation of earlier inspiration bringing closure on the traumas of Symphony No.1 as a new ground-breaking symphonic work, and one which the composer knew would be his Magnum Opus?

Fast-forwarding to the present day, Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians bring a wealth of substance and idiomatic understanding to both Symphony and Dances, readily alert to the significant cross references between the two works. Never merely instrumental, the music breathes and sings intuitively with a broad expressive range of flexibility, colour and transparency, the musicians playing off each other with subtlety and style. This is an orchestra that listens to itself, palpably and proudly restating its prime Rachmaninov pedigree.

The performance of the symphony immediately seizes its cue from the biblical epigraph inscribed by the composer in the score: ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord’, the same that Tolstoy placed above Anna Karenina. There’s certainly much fist-shaking from the ‘vengeance’ motto theme that opens the first movement, with a winsomely contrasted second movement that conjures a winter sleigh ride increasingly threatened by derailment from the same theme. The opening melody of the third movement is exquisitely coaxed straight from the composer’s top drawer, with adroit handling of the ebb and flow of tension in the more disturbed central section. The finale is a ride to the abyss culminating in a thrilling chase before the hand of vengeance brings Fate knocking on the door in a coda of baleful terminal impact.

In the Symphonic Dances the stamp of the first dance has an open-air, primitive rawness, with maybe even a doff of the cap to the early Stravinsky ballets. Some listeners may be uncomfortable with Nézet-Séguin’s tempo for the return of the main subject marked ‘Tempo1’, which is considerably faster than the very convincing ‘Non allegro’ he delivers for its opening statement, but it has considerable flair and slows down genially into the magical final bars to make the most of the quote from the symphony. For completists, we also have the additional chromatic scales for piano with supporting harp chords in the opening section, which were found in a copy of the published score housed in the Library of Congress written in the composer’s hand, and also included by Ormandy. The second dance is a suave and spectral ballroom waltz that eventually spirals out of control into the shades of Ravel’s La Valse, while the third is a rhythmically crazed Witches’ Sabbath. The contrasting central sections of all three dances are leavened by playing of sovereign lyricism and poise.

Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra were the natural catalyst for the symphony’s re-evaluation. Their long-standing collaboration with the composer, both as pianist and conductor, has always lent cachet to their 1966 recording for Sony - review - but very few subsequent recordings have successfully captured the full palette of extraordinary ingredients in this feet-finding young composer’s bubbling symphonic cauldron. Of the Russians, perhaps not surprisingly given his credentials in the composer’s piano works, Ashkenazy with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw has all the necessary heft and sensitivity with glorious orchestral depth and presence courtesy of superb Decca engineering (4857892, Symphonies 1-3). More recently Vasily Petrenko also delivers a scorcher from Liverpool - review - as does Mariss Jansons with the St.Petersburg PO (review - now download only, still good value), both on Warner.

For the Symphonic Dances Kondrashin with the Moscow PO or live with the Concertgebouw and Svetlanov with the USSR State SO, especially in the latter’s later recording from the mid-1990s, bring authentic inspiration direct from the source. Ashkenazy - review - Petrenko: Recording of the Month - review - review - and Jansons - review - are also highly recommendable for the Dances. Notwithstanding the considerable merits of these classic recordings, this new DG release is the most auspicious augur for more Rachmaninov from an orchestra that can once again be referred to as “Those Fabulous Philadelphians”.

Ian Julier

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