ANNIVERSARIES: Sergei Rachmaninoff Conducted Philadelphia Orchestra in Recording of His Symphony No. 3 75 Years Ago

Philadelphia Orchestra/Sergei Rachmaninoff
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3/Isle of the Dead/Vocalise
(RCA Gold Seal)

During most of his life, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was best known as a pianist and composer. He only took up conducting through an odd set of circumstances. The premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 was seriously marred by the inept conducting of Glazunov, who was reputedly drunk. Not only did this impress on the young Rachmaninoff how crucial a good conductor was to the success of his music, the critical rejection of his First Symphony on the basis of that performance sent him into a depression and caused a mental block against composing.

The mental block was eventually overcome through hypnosis, but in the meantime, business magnate Savva Mamontov somewhat charitably hired Rachmaninoff to conduct his Moscow Private Russian Opera Company, overlooking the composer's lack of experience in that role. He quickly became a fine baton-wielder, and even afterwards continued conducting, giving him three careers (although he lamented how both conducting and his lucrative piano career ate up time that could have been devoted to composing).

Rachmaninoff composed relatively little in the years after he left Russia at the end of 1917 in the wake of the Revolution. When he did intermittently resume writing large-scale works in 1926, it was in a more intellectual (some would say drier) vein than his ecstatically melodic early style. Written in 1935-36, the Third Symphony was premiered by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra on November 6, 1936. Rachmaninoff subsequently revised it, with the new version first being performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. For years, Rachmaninoff's later works were not popular either with critics or the public. In the Robert Layton-edited A Guide to the Symphony, David Brown calls the three-movement Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44, "a sad failure." In Michael Steinberg's The Symphony: A Listener's Guide, the author paraphrases the composer saying, a year before this recording, that he know of only three people -- including himself -- who like the Third. In Edward Downes's 1976 book The New York Philharmonic Guide to the Symphony, the author considers none of Rachmaninoff's symphonies worthy of inclusion, which probably, the origins of such guides being what they are, meant he had never had the occasion to write program notes for any of them, so unpopular and unworthy of programming were they.

The piece, however, is actually quite rewarding both intellectually and viscerally. The introduction to the first movement is quite magical, and already contains the genetic material, so to speak, of much of what is about to follow. The main thematic melody is quite interesting, with the irregularity of a natural inspiration rather than some squared-off refinement. It's a subtly complex movement in terms of rhythm and orchestration, and also offers some surprisingly modern (for Rachmaninoff) harmonies. The second movement is inspired by the same thematic cell heard at the start of the first movement, but introduces many additional ideas. Though the second movement is an Adagio, it features a scherzo-like faster section in the middle. Since this is a three-movement work, that faster section is like a mini-movement bursting, Alien-like, from the belly of the slow movement so that even in its three-movement form it will have all the features of a standard four-movement symphony. There are more winning moments of masterful orchestration as well. The finale, though most definitely not a failure, does proceed with a certain unease, raising expectations that it then eludes, though the fugue in the middle is a brilliant inspiration. There is also, not for the first time in Rachmaninoff's career, a reference to the portentous tune of the Requiem chant's "Dies Irae." It is quite the journey, this finale.

The Third Symphony can seem a bit arid in its inspiration in the hands of some conductors, but Rachmaninoff made it a stirringly Romantic experience on December 11, 1939, when he documented his interpretation of the Third Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra. His sense of rubato is subtle yet extremely effective; as a result, his overall pacing and phrasing are brisk without seeming rushed or unfeeling -- no other conductor I have heard conveys the work's pulse quite as the composer does. The melodies bloom nicely in this reading, even if they still can't achieve the relaxed tunefulness of some of his earlier piano masterpieces. The only complaint is that he doesn't take the exposition repeat in the first movement. He was stung by criticism that his later works were too long; at least he didn't subject this piece to the brutal cuts some others received.  The recording quality is good for the period.

(This invaluable CD also contains two recordings Rachmaninoff made 10 years earlier with the Philadelphians. Isle of the Dead, Op. 29, a deeply affecting tone poem inspired by a Böcklin painting, is in 5/4 meter, but in Rachmaninoff's hands this dark work flows with utter naturalness. In between the tone poem and the symphony comes his orchestration of his famous "Vocalise," Op. 34 No. 14, one of his most famous melodies. In some hands this tidbit can seem saccharine, but under Rachmaninoff's direction it exudes a brooding beauty yet is not over-inflated in scope.) - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.

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