May 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Regular Feature: If Only They Had Written for Films:

No. 3: Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Rachmaninov died only ten years or so after the establishment of modern original scores at the beginning of the ‘talkies’ era. His music has been used in several films, notably his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor in Brief Encounter, and the famous Variation No. 18 of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in The Story of Three Loves. His Piano Concerto No. 3 was played and was featured extensively in Shine, the film based on the life of pianist David Helfgott. Interestingly, at the same time as the early scores by Max Steiner and Korngold etc., there was a late flowering in Rachmaninov’s composing career: the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (1934), the Symphony No. 3 in A minor (1936), and Symphonic Dances (1940). But Rachmaninov was very much occupied with his concert platform career as one of the most accomplished pianists ever and so the chances of him composing for the screen were slim indeed. Nevertheless his compositions are the stuff of film music: heroic, sadly sentimental, romantic and yearning; colourful and atmospheric -- and supremely melodic


Besides the immensely popular Piano Concerto No. 2, the following works are recommended, they are representative of different genres.

Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 brims with good tunes; it is exciting with one of the composer’s most appealing broad romantic melodies gracing the slow movement. The recommended recording is by André Previn recently reissued in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series. Another remarkable reissue in this admirable series is the brilliant performance by Michelangeli of Rachmaninov’s greatly undervalued and less immediately accessible, but nonetheless rewarding Piano Concerto No. 4 (coupled with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major). The more immediately appealing Piano Concerto No. 3 is played by Martha Argerich who attacks Rachmaninov’s passionate music like a tigress in the Philips (446 673-2) top recommendation which also includes a hair-raising account of Tchaikovsky’s very popular Piano Concerto No. 1.

Rachmaninov’s symphonic poem, The Isle of the Dead could have been written for a screenplay. The evocative opening music of a boat, carrying the coffin, gliding through the mist towards the mysterious island of Böcklin’s gloomy painting is very potent and the turbulent central music recalling the dead one’s tumultuous life is also remarkably compelling. The recommended recording is by Ashkenazy, and it is coupled with Rachmaninov’s tremendously exciting Symphonic Dances on Decca. As a sample of Rachmaninov’s instrumental writing for piano, why not try the new, highly esteemed BIS recording of the Piano Sonata No 2 and the Études-tableaux Op. 39 played by Freddy Kempf?

Finally Rachmaninov’s sublime and very melodic a cappella choral music of his Vespers (or All-Night-Vigils) should not be missed. Here the recommended recording is by The Saint Petersburg Cappella on Saisson Russe (harmonia mundi) RUS 788050.

Incidentally, five of Rachmaninov’s Études-tableaux were orchestrated by the Italian composer, Ottorino Respighi. Respighi will be the subject of next month’s edition of ‘If Only They Had Written for Films.’


Ian Lace

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