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Rachmaninov (1873-1943) - Symphony No. 2

The Russian Revolution in 1917, with its abortive antecedent of 1905, has apparently bestowed a double bequest, musically speaking, on civilisation. Some composers, like Shostakovich, sat tight, flowering on the stony ground of oppression. Others, like Rachmaninov, fled to richer pastures. Gardeners know that it is risky, transplanting flowers while in bloom. To be forcibly uprooted, and to flee in fear from your homeland must be terrible; how many talents withered as a result? 

The First Symphony's failure at its 1897 premiere so devastated Rachmaninov that he became incapable of composing. Fortunately, the ministrations of a hypnotist, Nikolai Dahl, somehow (though don't ask me how) restored his dented ego sufficiently for him to resume. The resulting Second Piano Concerto (1900-1) was an unqualified success. However, all too soon came that other wrench. In 1906, Rachmaninov fled from Russia. He spent the next three and a half years in Dresden (reputedly the loveliest of cities), where he enjoyed the opera, was within easy reach of Leipzig, and continued composing. 

The first product of this period was the Second Symphony (1906-7). Although he was clearly more susceptible to criticism than exile, the latter's impact does seem to permeate the music. In fact, it's tempting (though not compulsory) to infer an autobiographical slant, briefly italicised in the synopsis below. This symphony's sound-world is remarkable: sombre harmonies complement orchestration like deeply burnished mahogany, a sound so similar to that of Franck's Symphonie that I wonder it's not similarly slated. No matter, it's a gloriously rich sound, an ideal medium for those gorgeously contoured melodies. Imagine the embers of a huge log fire, beating back an icy black Russian winter's night. Rachmaninov's music similarly smoulders redly for ages, and occasionally, with or without warning, flares briefly and spectacularly. 

For many years, this symphony was performed with many cuts, apparently just to appease the forerunner of today's “sound-bite” culture. Yet, with the disfiguring cuts and expansive continuity restored, it seems not a moment too long. The first movement, certainly, is the sort of music you should absorb through your pores! 

First Movement - Largo; Allegro moderato: Of gloom and uncertainty in the homeland. “Gloom” is right: the movement oozes Russian melancholy (Russians are world beaters when it comes to gloom!). Rachmaninov lays out a huge sonata form, complete with exposition repeat (sometimes omitted, even in performances of the uncut version). The long introduction, emerging from subterranean depths, languorously stews materials which feed the entire work (though, without study, this is not obvious!).  Rachmaninov, perhaps compensating for the music's homogeneity, telegraphed key structural points using solo instruments: an oboe introduces the first subject, surging over sonorous chords, a clarinet heralds the second, its short phrases sighing memorably. Necessarily the most distinctive, a violin prefaces a development section culminating in a big climax replete with heavy percussion. Only the second subject is reprised, running into the coda, a quick march ending on a curiously abrupt grunt. 

Second Movement - Allegro molto: Of flight, and optimism for the future. Based on a scherzo form, ABA-C-ABA, this generally avoids wholesale repeats. By contrast with the first movement, the Russian fire now spits colourful sparks, although rich chords still abound. Listen out for a little “tiddly-pom” phrase, which was recalled in the late Symphonic Dances. [A] is a vaulting horn theme over a scintillating string rhythm, while [B], on violins, is Rachmaninov at his most drop-dead gorgeous. A loud bang triggers the chattering trio section [C], which develops a marching character (snare drum). Near the end, a “Russian Orthodox” style chorale appears briefly, and enigmatically. 

Third Movement - Adagio: Of regret at what has been left behind. To describe this movement as a variations on three themes cast broadly into a ternary structure maybe wouldn't be wide of the mark, but it would completely miss the point! This breathtaking and unparalleled lyrical outpouring requires of its listener nothing less than utter submission to its sheer emotiveness. A verbal prop, should any be needed, is offered by this poetic quotation: 

O you who hear, reflect on all you’ve lost - 
And at what cost - while you live on, in fear 
That in your sleep fond memory may fade! 
Now, wakeful made, attend my song - and weep

Finale - Allegro vivace: Of resolution and new confidence. This is another telescoped sonata form. Adopting a phrase from the lead-in to the first movement's big climax, the first subject erupts, sizzling, flaring, bristling with vitality, moderated at its core by a march (woodwind answered by bass strings). A strong modulation releases the second subject, sung by strings in short, swooning phrases, momentarily reminiscent of Tchaikovsky. There is here a secret formula, which Rachmaninov (even more than Tchaikovsky) had off pat and Hollywood tried to copy, though without success. The development, following a hesitant hiatus, kicks the first subject around busily, but in relatively subdued mood. The tension is cranked up to reprise only the first subject. This twists into the coda. Protracted, powerful crescendi launch the second subject, soaring into a triumphant “Russian Orthodox” chorale (yes, the very same!). But even this blazing paean is not the clincher: that belongs to the first subject's whirling spirit. 

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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