A six-and-a-half foot scowl

Sergei Rachmaninov died in Beverly Hills in the US state of California in 1943. Maybe because of the city’s glitzy association with Hollywood and the composer’s often silver-screen romantic sounds, he carries a more modernistic persona than his actual life history supports.

This was a man who straddled generations and geographies: born in Russia in 1873; uprooted by the Russian Revolution in 1917; landed in the United States a year later.

8.573051Leonard Slatkin, currently conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, was born only ten months after Rachmaninov died, and his latest release continues the spirit of the great Russian master in two fine performances of works from his later years: the Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances (Naxos 8.573051).

Rachmaninov considered his Third Symphony one of his finest works, but the First Symphony (Naxos 8.550806), Alexander-Glazunovwrittensome forty years earlier in 1896, received such bad critical reaction that it sent him into a bout of depression from which he emerged only with some considerable difficulty. The critics at that time, however, made little comment about the poor quality of the performance. It is very strongly suspected that the conductor on that occasion, the composer Alexander Glazunov, was inebriated, which helped put the noose around both the première and Rachmaninov’s self-confidence. Glazunov was writing his own Sixth Symphony (Naxos 8.554293) at the same time and with the same hands as wielded the baton on that unfortunate occasion. Comparing the two works in that context is an interesting exercise.

Rachmaninov had already been knocked sideways in 1893 by the sudden death of Tchaikovsky, whom he knew personally; the more positive outcome on that occasion, however, was that his grief found heart-on-sleeve expression in the substantial Trio élégiaque No. 2 (Naxos 8.557423), headed “To the memory of a great artist,” that brims with challenging piano writing and radiant melodies.

sergei-rachmaninov-2When Rachmaninov eventually emerged from his depression following the initial failure of his First Symphony, it was the success of his Piano Concerto No. 2 that restored him. At any first rehearsal of the work, the orchestra’s front desk of second violins will be on the look-out for how the soloist will negotiate the work’s opening eight chords that have a wide spread of notes for the left hand. They require the player to stretch the interval of a tenth, which is not feasible for players with smaller hands; they have to split off the lowest note first to compensate. Rachmaninov had no such problem. He was a large man (with “a six-and-a-half foot scowl” as Stravinsky remarked) and had suitably large hands to control the notes.

So, it’s interesting – and maybe surprising – to listen to several versions of those opening bars and hear how the pianists take different approaches: playing the chords as a block; splitting off the lowest note; and applying a mixture of the two.

Artur Rubinstein (Naxos Historical 8.111289)
Jenő Jandó (Naxos 8.550117)
William Kapell (Naxos Historical 8.110692)
Sergei Rachmaninov (Naxos Historical 8.110601)

Like many composers of note, Rachmaninov wore the three hats of composer, conductor and performer throughout his life. During his years in America, however, which incorporated spells in Europe, his lifestyle depended more on performance than composition to pay the bills. Fortunately, we are able to re-live those times through a number of studio recordings that he made.

You can appreciate Rachmaninov’s virtuoso piano technique and distinctive tone both on the disc of his own works (Naxos Historical 8.111397) and sergei-rachmaninov-3another featuring music by Chopin, Schumann and Liszt (Naxos Historical 8.112020). He can also be heard as the soloist in his four piano concertos (Naxos Historical 8.110601 and 8.110602) and in the rôle of accompanist in violin sonatas performed by Fritz Kreisler (Naxos Historical 8.110968).

There’s also the opportunity to hear him conducting his Third Symphony (Naxos Historical 8.111357) before slipping into a comparison with our new release of the same work in Leonard Slatkin’s hands. Rachmaninov himself would surely have appreciated these latest developments in technology, technique and talent. Today’s critics did, hailing Slatkin’s first disc in the series that featured the Second Symphony performed by the Detroit Symphony:

“…here is a performance warmed by musicians who clearly love this symphony … hearing his performance one is convinced that his musicians are truly inside the music emotionally.” (BBC Music Magazine)

sergei-rachmaninov-4As a quick coda, let’s take a glimpse back to one of the first works that anointed Rachmaninov’s future as a composer and already bears the characteristic melancholy that was to colour much of his future output: the Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2 (Naxos Historical 8.111397, track 3). Written when he was only 19 years old, this recording demonstrates his goal of perfection in the recording studio – it was the 23rd take of the piece!