RACHMANINOV conducts RACHMANINOV = Isle of the Dead, Op. 29; Vocalise; Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44 – Philadelphia Orchestra/Serge Rachmaninov
Naxos Historical 8.111357, 59:17 [Not Distr. in U.S.A] ****:
We tend to forget that Serge Rachmaninov (1873-1943) possessed conducting skills on a par with his keyboard and compositional abilities, his having denied conductorships because he felt his repertory lacked breadth! Rachmaninov bequeathed us only three inscriptions, here assembled and remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn, a decided leap in sonic quality over the former Pearl label incarnation (and available online from outside-U.S. sources).
The Isle of the Dead (1909) received its inscription from Rachmaninov 20 April 1929. Inspired by a painting of Arnold Boecklin, the music captures the undulating waves of the Styx, then progresses through the plainchant Dies Irae to an intensely nostalgic melodic sequence that builds up–a la Tchaikovsky–to a superheated passion. The orchestration, quite lush, encompasses huge brass and string swathes, the canny application of harp and tympani, and the presence of low woodwinds in concert with sustained outbursts and whirling figures in tutti. The menace of the Dies Irae in the latter third of the work casts an ineluctable melancholy over the scene, The lachrymose return of the opening materials under the string melody suggests that Charon’s journey remains eternal, a sad momento mori in music that quite haunted Rachmaninov’s fertile imagination.
Rachmaninov set his wordless Op. 34 Vocalise in several arrangements: the one for string and wind orchestra (20 April 1929) appeared as filler for the RCA 78 rpm set M 75 with the Isle of the Dead. The string tone clearly reflects Stokowski’s free-bowing influence, a continuous and plastic line of melody that soars and ebbs in effulgent harmony. The 1936 Symphony No. 3 (11 December 1939) exists, like the later Symphonic Dances, as a direct result of Rachmaninov’s fruitful association with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It has never really challenged the hegemony of the E Minor Symphony, although its melodic and structural economy seems more classic and direct. The first movement’s large theme resembles “Shenandoah” or a deeply-ingrained folk melody. Somewhat in the manner of Sibelius, Rachmaninov condenses his second and third movements to combine Adagio and Scherzo. The defining affect remains nostalgic, typical of Rachmaninov’s musical persona. The level of execution from the Philadelphia Orchestra never ceases to impress for its intensity and clarity of detail. The last movement indeed presages the energized Symphonic Dances of Op. 45, a work Rachmaninov intended to inscribe, along with the Schumann Concerto and the Liszt Totentanz, but the “Fatal Bellman” intervened.
— Gary Lemco