Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Review: Rachmaninov - Symphonic Works - Ashkenazy - 1980-84, 3 CDs, DECCA

Stupendous bargain!

Rachmaninoff seems to suffer from the Liszt Syndrome these days: his piano works are universally admired and are among the most often performed and recorded in the standard repertoire; yet his symphonic works (without piano!) seems to suffer an ill-deserved neglect.

How monstrously ill-deserved this neglect really is can be determined by listening to this three discs box-set which is now old enough to be offered at the price of one! Since this (shame on me!) is my real introduction to this part of Rachmaninoff's oeuvre, there will be no comparative analyses here. I only want to emphasize the fact that for the price of one disc you get three, containing nearly four hours of music (total timings: 76:15, 76:09, and 78:15), including three ''ordinary'' symphonies (Nos.1-3) and three additional works not an iota less powerful and moving: the haunting tone poem The Isle of the Dead, the strange and beautiful Symphonic Dances in three parts, and the choral symphony The Bells for soprano, tenor, baritone, choir and orchestra in four parts. None of these works is without merit, even the youthful First Symphony which Rachmaninoff composed but 22 years old and which was such a massive fiasco at its premiere that the future great composer lapsed into a three-year depression. As a matter of fact, a great deal of this music is either beautiful beyond words or original beyond criticism, with brooding melodic lines and masterful orchestration which are entirely Rachmaninovian.

It cannot be denied that Rachmaninoff matured more slowly as an orchestral composer than as a piano composer – the First Symphony is hardly as memorable as the Five Piano Pieces Op. 3 composed even earlier – but this does not in the least mean that later in his life he did not create orchestral masterpieces worthy of more frequent performance and recording than they are given nowadays. One may search – and may even find – in these vast and mysterious works hints of Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner or Mahler, but the music remains unmistakably and utterly Rachmaninovian all the same.

As for the sound quality, I don't understand the complaints of some people. We have here a great orchestra (Concertgebouw), a fine conductor (Vladimir Ashkenazy), one of the leading labels as far as orchestral sound is concerned (DECCA) and digital recordings of all pieces (DDD, 1980-84). It is true, of course, that many early digital recordings do suffer from glossy surface in combination with painful lack of depth and sonority, but if there is something like that here, I don't hear it.

The box set comes with an interesting booklet too, signed only with ''DECCA 1998'' unfortunately. There is some dull technical stuff and some of the biographical background might have been less neglected, but the one essay printed here (in English, German and French) also has a number of fascinating points which will surely make this not-so-easy-to-understand music much more accessible. For example, there is one compelling comment that the famous plainchant ''Dies Irae'' pervades not only Rachmaninoff's First Symphony but every major work of his; later several examples are pointed out, such as an appearance of the plainchant in the finale of the Third Symphony. Another perfectly spellbinding detail is the first part of Symphonic Dances which employs a solo saxophone and, more remarkably, in its end the ''motto theme'' of the First Symphony is quoted. Such titbits are to my mind priceless for they give a unique glance into Rachmaninoff's mind and how it was expressed in his symphonic works.

Of course the booklet also includes all sung texts in The Bells. These are verses by Edgar Allan Poe in Russian translations/adaptations by the poet Konstantin Balmont. Unfortunately, but expectedly, the Russian text is given only in hideous transliteration which is doubtless easier for people from Western Europe or the States, who generally have a great aversion to Cyrillic texts, but for those who don't such Latinized spelling is difficult to understand. Nevertheless, it is still possible to follow the singing quite easily. The English original as well as French and German translations are given too.

If you love Rachmaninoff's piano works – and who doesn't, save Alfred Brendel? – but are new to his symphonic output, this is the perfect box-set for you. Whatever faults it may or may not have in terms of sonics or interpretation, they are fully compensated by a ridiculously cheap price and a wonderful comprehensiveness. You can always get an alternative collection later. Just about the only negative thing about this one is that it doesn't include the famous Vocalise – then again, there is not enough space on any of the CDs for it. The only annoying thing about the presentation is a glaring error in Rachmaninoff's years of birth and death: 1875-1945. So, by way of conclusion, the correct years plus the ones in which these works were composed; all but one of them are from Rachmaninoff's maturity, and it shows:

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943)

Symphony No. 1 (1895)
Symphony No. 2 (1907)
The Isle of the Dead (1909)
The Bells (1912-13)
Symphony No. 3 (1935-36)
Symphonic Dances (1940)

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