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Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

Symphony No 3 & Symphonic Dances

Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: April 2016
Royal Festival Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Cornall
Engineered by Jonathan Stokes
Release date: September 2018
Total duration: 77 minutes 28 seconds

The concluding release in this mini series presents Rachmaninov's Symphony No 3, the work of an exile in America with poignant allusions to the world of a lost Russia, alongside the perennially popular Symphonic Dances, the composer's final work, and a vigorous and assured statement.


‘The music-making has the flair and authority you’d expect … Ashkenazy ensures that the (deliberately?) episodic finale of the Third Symphony retains suitably compulsive drive and snap where necessary. The coda is thrilling’ (Gramophone)

‘The Philharmonia produces a leaner, more transparent sound, captured ‘live’ with almost tactile precision and accuracy … the music’s distinct Russianness is experienced at a much deeper level this time around’ (BBC Music Magazine)
Symphony No 3 in A minor Op 44
The Russian Revolution had a huge impact on Rachmaninov’s career. At first, like the vast majority of his fellow-countrymen, he supported the fall of the Romanov dynasty by giving concerts in what he called ‘my now-liberated country’, but by the autumn of 1917, the situation in Russia had become intolerable. The country was paralysed by strikes; changes of government seemed to do nothing to alleviate the grim living conditions suffered by the population, and musical life had ground to a halt. Rachmaninov was desperately worried about his future, and began applying to get a visa to leave. An opportunity arose when he was invited to play in Stockholm. He seized the chance, and just before Christmas 1917 he, his wife Natalya and their two daughters left Russia, never to return.

For the first year of exile they lived in Stockholm and Copenhagen, before Rachmaninov finally decided that his future lay across the Atlantic. In November 1918 they sailed for the USA, where Rachmaninov—described by a fellow-virtuoso as ‘the greatest pianist of his time’—was offered a series of lucrative concerts and a recording contract. From then onwards, he worked primarily as a concert pianist, fitting in composing whenever time allowed. Of his 45 published opus numbers, only six date from the period of his self-imposed exile during the remaining quarter-century of his life. The fourth piano concerto of 1926 was his first significant piece for eight years. After another gap of five years came the 'Corelli' variations for piano, completed in June 1931. In 1934, a period of recuperation following a minor operation allowed him time to compose the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra. Then, in the summer of 1935 during a gap between concert seasons, he began work on a third symphony, but only got two movements written before he had to start practising again for the next gruelling round of concert engagements. He returned to the symphony in June 1936 while staying at his newly completed villa near Lucerne, writing at the end of the score ‘Finished. I thank God!’

The symphony was premiered in Philadelphia by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski on 6 November 1936. Rachmaninov was disappointed by what he called its ‘sour’ reception. He commented rather bitterly at a press interview:

When my first symphony was first played, they said it was so-so. Then when my second was played they said the first was good, but that the second was so-so. Now that my third has been played—just this fall—they say that my first and second are good but that my—oh, well, you see how it is!

In the light of the symphony’s cool reception, Rachmaninov deferred a planned recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in September 1937, deciding instead to revise it. In fact, the original version was given its London premiere at the Queen’s Hall two months later by the LPO under Sir Thomas Beecham. Rachmaninov then revised it in the summer of 1938, and eventually recorded it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1939.

The third symphony is no less lyrical or dramatic than Rachmaninov’s previous works, but it has a pared-down quality (in common with Rachmaninov’s only other late orchestral work, the Symphonic Dances of 1940), both in terms of form and texture. It is also permeated with a mood of anguished yearning, in contrast to the radiant, full-blown optimism of the second symphony. Rachmaninov’s later years were overshadowed by financial worry, overwork, increasing ill-health, and above all, by homesickness. In 1930 he said in an interview given in London:

There is a burden heavier to me than any other; it is that I have no country. I had to leave the land where I was born, where I struggled and suffered all the sorrows of the young, and where I finally achieved success. The whole world is open to me and success awaits me everywhere. Only one place is closed to me, and that is my own country, Russia.

Indeed, not only was Russia itself closed to Rachmaninov, but by the late 1930s his music was actually banned by the Soviet regime, so contemporary Russian audiences were not able to hear what has been called ‘the last great utterance of the Russian Romantic symphonic tradition’. Sir Henry Wood, who conducted the third symphony in Rachmaninov’s presence in 1938, recognised its significance, writing encouragingly:

The work impresses me as being of the true Russian romantic school; one cannot get away from the beauty and melodic line of the themes and their logical development. As did Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov uses the instruments of the orchestra to their fullest effect. Those lovely little phrases for solo violin, echoed on the four solo woodwind instruments, have a magical effect in the slow movement. I am convinced that Rachmaninov’s children will see their father’s third symphony take its rightful place in the affection of that section of the public which loves melody. In fact, I go so far as to predict that it will prove as popular as Tchaikovsky’s fifth.

Rachmaninov’s third symphony has only three movements, the central, faster section of the slow movement acting as a scherzo. All three of Rachmaninov’s symphonies begin with a motto-theme, which in the third is heard very quietly at the outset of the brief slow introduction, and which recurs in various guises throughout the piece. The first movement constantly defeats the listener’s expectations—lyrical melodies surge up, but are undermined by motifs of unease, and fragmentary, almost ghostly dance-like themes, so the long-breathed melodies we associate with Rachmaninov’s music never quite materialise. The movement builds up to a climax, and then subsides, ending quietly, and the second movement also begins quietly, with horn notes over a harp accompaniment. Henry Wood’s ‘magical’ solo violin appears with a yearning melody which flowers into a full-blown violin theme, while the harp underpins the woodwind solos mentioned by Wood. But the pastoral idyll cannot remain unblemished: storm clouds appear on the horizon, the tempo quickens, and after a few false starts a dramatic scherzo erupts, almost grotesque in style, but with touches of delicate scoring. The tempo unwinds again and we return briefly to the mood of the opening, with the solo violin ushering in a quietly reflective ending.

The vigorous finale is episodic in style, contrasting dramatic, almost martial outbursts with lyrical, yearning themes of great beauty, an extended fugal section which starts on the violins, a passage for harp and woodwind underpinned by a menacing snare-drum rhythm, and a dance-like section in which a tambourine joins the accompaniment to a flute solo. The coda builds up in speed and intensity to round off the symphony on an optimistic note.

Symphonic Dances Op 45
Rachmaninov left his native Russia in 1917, initially living in Copenhagen before receiving offers of work from America, where he settled in 1919. There followed an intensive schedule of touring, in both the States and across Europe. During the early 1930s, whilst visiting Switzerland, Rachmaninov decided to build himself a villa there, at Hertenstein on the banks of Lake Lucerne.

This varied existence suited Rachmaninov remarkably well. On the one hand, Russian remained his main language, and the family continued to welcome Russian visitors, employ Russian servants and observe Russian customs. A friend remarked that their lifestyle was ‘very much like that of an old Russian estate’. On the other, Rachmaninov relished novelty; the architecture of his villa was fashionably reminiscent of the Bauhaus style, and he enjoyed exploring Lucerne in a speedboat. Back in rural Russia, he had been the first in his region to own a car, and in the States he became partial to the latest ice-cream sodas.

The States beckoned once again when, in 1939, the threat of war compelled Rachmaninov and his family to leave Europe and return to the USA. Rachmaninov began work on the Symphonic Dances in late summer 1940, having originally conceived them as music for a new ballet by his friend, the choreographer Mikhael Fokin. The latter’s death on 22 August brought the scheme to an abrupt end, but the music remains as the only complete work composed by Rachmaninov in America. Originally scored for two pianos, Rachmaninov’s desire to finish the work’s orchestration was heightened by the fact that the 1940-41 concert season was already under way. Rachmaninov wrote to the conductor Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985) in August:

Last week I finished a new symphonic piece, which I naturally want to give first to you and your orchestra. It is called ‘Fantastic Dances’. I shall now begin the orchestration. Unfortunately my concert tour begins on October 14th. I have a great deal of practice to do and I don’t know whether I shall be able to finish the orchestration before November.
I should be very glad if, upon your return, you would drop over to our place. I should like to play the piece for you. We are staying at the Honeyman Estate, Huntingdon, Long Island, and only forty miles from New York, so that you can easily reach us …

Rachmaninov completed the Symphonic Dances between 22 September and 29 October 1940, dedicating the work to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, who agreed to give the work’s premiere early in 1941. Rachmaninov met with Ormandy and the orchestra, explaining the dedication of his work to them with great warmth—and alluding to his admiration for the Russian opera singer, Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938): ‘When I was a young man, I idolised Chaliapin. He was my ideal, and when I thought of composition I thought of song and Chaliapin. Now he is gone. Today, when I think of composing, my thoughts turn to you …’

The work’s premiere took place on 3 January 1941, and was met with a tepid critical response. Yet the critics may have been too swift to dismiss the Symphonic Dances as nostalgic reworkings of old ideas, when in fact there is much that is fresh and masterful in each movement. This was not a desperate last gasp, but a vigorous and assured final statement.

The glittering, witty first dance, representing Midday, is rich in musical allusion. Rachmaninov’s use of the alto saxophone for a central solo recalls Prokofiev’s prominent use of the instrument in Romeo and Juliet (1935). More overt is Rachmaninov’s reference to his own first symphony of 1895—a wry, rather brave quotation given that the symphony’s premiere was so terrible that it had triggered in the composer a nervous breakdown. The principal theme of the first symphony was based on Russian liturgical music, and this represents one of several allusions to church music in the Dances.

The Dances are not a literal depiction of a day passing, but symbolise the passage of human life. Apt, then, that the first symphony should be quoted early in the work. The second dance, a waltz, was intended to conjure up twilight, and, there is a languorous, jazz-like quality to the music, with its sinuous woodwind solos, that perfectly evokes this time of day. Yet there is a darker undercurrent to the movement, too; a chilly breeze reminding the revellers that night is on its way.

The third dance evokes midnight—representing death. For this movement, Rachmaninov returned once more to the Dies irae from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass: a haunting section of plainchant to which he had alluded in numerous works, including his Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini (1934). He also quotes 'Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi' (‘Blessed be the Lord’) from his 1915 choral work, All-night Vigil. The coda is marked 'Alleluia', and the Dies irae must ultimately submit to this more hopeful material, in a key that was important to the composer: D minor. This life-affirming conclusion is all the more moving when one remembers that this was Rachmaninov’s final work. Fittingly, he wrote at the end of the score: ‘I thank thee, Lord.’

Wendy Thompson & Joanna Wyld © 2018

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