Rachmaninov Symphony No. 3 and Symphonic Dances

January 19, 2016

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 Sergej Rachmaninov (1873-1945) was part of the second wave of Russian composers after the “Mighty Five” and Tchaikovsky with a small amount of overlap from Tchaikovsky who arranged for a performance of his Aleko, a one act opera written as his graduation piece from the Moscow Observatory in 1889. In fact Tchaikovsky went so far as to feature the work with one of his Opera’s, quite a feather in the cap of the 16 year old. Tchaikovsky considered Rachmaninov to be his successor as both wrote in the traditional Germanic style unlike Scriabin who was born a year earlier and went in a completely different direction. Throughout his life Sergej spent his entire life in this very conservative mode. After the 1917 revolution Rachmaninov emigrated to Paris and finally to Hollywood, CA in 1935 where he wrote these last two works represented on this Oehms Classic CD. There are many recordings of both of these works as these are works that the public find accessible, easy on the ears, melodic, and the correct length for older vinyl recordings and the second half of a concert program. My first recordings were on the Vox/Turnabout label with a very young (so was I) Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony. If I remember correctly I had to return them to the record store to get platters that had a minimal amount of pops. With this recording today you’ll no longer be faced with this problem but will get a properly engineered CD with good sound quality

The 3rd Symphony in A minor, op. 44 was written in 1935 and Stokowski gave the premiere with the Philadelphia in November of 1936. The three movement work, while something of a change for Rachmaninov, being less stoic and offering more harmonics and improved instrumentation is still as Rachmaninov states “I am a Russian composer” and it indeed is shown in this work. The melancholy and yearning are all present in the first movement with a melodic theme my brain has remembered for over 40 years. The second movement is not unlike the second movement of the dances with it’s solo violin playing the main theme without the saxophone. An Andante of the first order that transforms itself into an Allegro. The final movement, the longest of the three with yet another lush theme that as it is being developed we hear a playful oboe and then a fugue. I like it! The finale is a rousing one with a full fff from the orchestra with an abrupt ending.  The work according to the NY Times was acidic, an adjective which did not sit well with Sergej. He was extremely sensitive to criticism and in some ways it may have contributed to his smaller output. The adjective that I would use to describe the work is delightful.

The Symphonic Dances, op. 45 was his last work and if I could sum it up it’s a  potpourri of some of his previous works. There are references to several of his works as well as Dies irae, a piece that he used in several of his other works, something that many composers used as a motif of death. The opening theme which is featured in the first movement is well orchestrated, the theme being passed from section to section. The second slower movement is featured as a saxophone solo with the winds providing the harmony. A very quiet soft section. The second movement features a theme that is performed by first a solo violin and then the woodwind section. The strings are sweeping and nicely flowing. The final movement an allegro vivace, begins quietly with the woodwinds but quickly moves into the Dies irae theme followed by a lively Spanish/Russian dance filled with orchestration that reminds me of Rimsky-Korsakov.

I like this recording because it offers the latest in digital technology and an orchestra and conductor who know how to perform and conduct this material. If you don’t have this work in your collection and you’re inclined toward orchestral works this is for you.

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