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Inaugurating their latest collaboration with conductor laureate Vladimir Ashkenazy, the Philharmonia Orchestra performs Rachmaninov’s volcanic Symphony No 1.
The irony of the affair is that, despite its obvious—and understandable—debts to Borodin and Tchaikovsky, the D minor symphony is in many respects superior in construction to Rachmaninov’s two other symphonies. Its first movement opens with a short slow introduction whose intial upward-sliding motif is to act as a ‘motto’, reappearing at the beginning of each succeeding movement (and elsewhere). The main theme of the allegro is an extension of the theme propounded in this introduction, and the second subject, Tchaikovsky-like, is a combination of three ideas announced in quick succession and in slower tempo. The development (beginning like that of the first movement in Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony with a fortissimo explosion) starts off with a fugal discussion of the first subject and reaches its climax in a broad, chorale-like transformation of it, which suggests that the theme was derived from a chant of the Russian Orthodox Church. The second movement (in F major) is a scherzo of great resource and subtlety, notable for the economy of its scoring and for its vacillation between wistfulness and an almost ghostly eeriness. The ‘motto’ reappears about half-way through, and we may also detect a veiled reference to the ‘Dies irae’ theme that Rachmaninov was to use so effectively elsewhere.
The larghetto in B flat major, also lightly scored for the most part, is in effect a rhapsodical meditation on a long, winding theme initiated by the first clarinet; there is a brief middle section derived from a dramatic incursion of the ‘motto’. The finale, basically and finally in D major, is anything but lightly scored: indeed Rachmaninov unleashes here a whole welter of orchestral sound. The movement could loosely be described as being in sonata form, but its episodic nature imparts a strong feeling of rondo design. The exuberant first subject (a transformation of the first movement’s main theme) and the soaring second subject are in strong contrast to one another, and there are numerous subsidiary ideas, including references to the ‘motto’. The movement ends with an expansive coda.
Robin Golding © 2017