The survey of the Rachmaninov symphonies, along with two symphonic poems of Balakirev, testifies to Gergiev’s sympathy for the “Old Russian” school.
RACHMANINOV: Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13; Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27; Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44; BALAKIREV: Russia; Tamara – London Symphony Orchestra/ Valery Gergiev – DSD LSO0816 (3 CDs plus 1 Pure Blu-ray) 77:57; 73:57; 76:13 (4/20/18) [Distr. by PIAS] ****:
Valery Gergiev recorded the three Rachmaninov symphonies between 2008 and 2015. Despite the catastrophic first performance of the First Symphony in D minor (27 March 1897) under Glazunov, and the score’s subsequent disappearance until 1944, the reconstructed work bears the impact and tumultuous energy of a young composer inflamed at once by romantic passion—via Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina—and a sense of the gypsy notion of fate. Each movement opens with a four-note figure, and a dire descending sequence in the low strings. Like his idol Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov feels compelled to write contrapuntal progressions as though to legitimize his claim to the symphonic tradition.
Gergiev’s performance of the first movement Grave – Allegro non troppo proves less histrionic than the rendition by Eugene Ormandy, tending to the lyrical and dramatically subdued, with more emphasis on interior lines. More than once, the gestures in the winds hint at the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov. The subsequent Allegro animato bears striking resemblance to both Mussorgsky’s “Nursery scene” from Boris Gudonov and the First Symphony by Alexander Borodin. The jerky, uneven scale reveals the ubiquitous Dies Irae, the composer’s persistent intimation of mortality. The development here bears comparisons with Liszt gift for thematic transformation and the fluttering figures in the scherzo of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. If Borodin makes an appearance in the Larghetto, so does the luxurious third movement from the Balakirev First Symphony in C Major. Balakirev’s oriental coloring blends with Rachmaninov’s liturgical penchant to produce music of appealing languor and exotic allure.
The last movement Rachmaninov marks Allegro con fuoco, and it does project a fiery menace along with its festive and militant oratory, once more infiltrated by the Dies Irae. The coda becomes singularly gnarled in its expression, reminding us that the composer had inscribed the words of St. Paul, “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay” into his score. The grimly malevolent pronouncement will return in even more startling colors in the last of his Symphonic Dances of 1940.
I must say, at the outset of my comments on Gergiev’s Symphonic Dances, that the LSO introduced me to this colorful work, via the direction of the brilliant egotist-conductor, Sir Eugene Goossens on the Everest label. Rachmaninov had the Philadelphia Orchestra in mind as the recipient of his three dances, likely because he relished the individual first chairs of Eugene Ormandy’s ensemble. The opening Non allegro evolves a kind of grim march, but the solemnity yields to a concoction of instrumentation—alto saxophone, piano, glockenspiel, harp, flute, and piccolo—hat lilts directly to the melos of the First Symphony. The evolution of the music from C minor to C Major has all the ramifications of Beethoven’s notion of “fateful” progress.
After a few measures of grotesquerie, the second Dance emerges as a ghostly waltz, perhaps with some of Ravel’s especial color. The solo violin (Tomo Keller) takes up the theme that glides into the woodwind and then lilting strings, milked by Gergiev’s particular rubato. Hints of Berlioz and perhaps a touch of Saint-Saens turn the whirl and exotic, unbuttoned glamour of the music into a Danse macabre. Rachmaninov utilizes the liturgy of his Russian orthodox Night Vigil to combine with the ubiquitous Dies Irae to revive his former debacle, the First Symphony. The scale of the music proves momentous, splashy, chromatic, and dynamically apocalyptic.
One of Rachmaninov’s most organic compositions, the Second Symphony in E minor (1908) embodies his nostalgic ethos to perfection, taking its opening series of motto themes (Lento) from unison cellos and basses, with sonorous additions from the English horn and bass clarinet. The Allegro moderato section utilizes sequences to accelerate the motion into G Major and a martial affect. The sound of the LSO woodwinds and tuba arises in creamy undulations, the lengthy bass notes fertile and languorous. The movement progresses in definite periods, reminiscent of Bruckner but overlapping the various themes into each other, having included a turbulent climax that eventually allows a modulation to E Major for the return of the music’s second theme. The sheer slickness of the LSO trumpets and trombones—as well as the shimmering strings—constitutes a miracle of sound in itself, courtesy of producer James Mallinson.
The Scherzo in A minor enjoys a hearty vigor, brilliant in its orchestration, urging a horn theme that inspires a contrapuntal central section that opens with the second violins. Amidst the vitality of the figures—or should we say, “in the midst of life”—Rachmaninov introducers his obsessive Dies Irae sequence, a bitter traveling companion and destination “from whose borne no traveler returns.” The famed Adagio in A Major features Andrew Marriner in the clarinet melody that extends for twenty-two bars. This music sighs and heaves with elements taken from Rachmaninov’s own opera Francesca da Rimini, especially his love-duet. The finale, Allegro vivace, maintains a festive character, and its often liturgical declamations in the huge development section suggest an homage to the Russian church and to Rimsky-Korsakov. The momentum of this music rarely ceases, except for six bars, to reminisce on the sow movement’s fertile melody. Gergiev urges the swagger and rhythmic confidence of this music, exploiting its big themes and broad octaves in appropriately large gestures.
Rachmaninov delayed his return to the symphony genre a good 30 years after his Second Symphony, creating his Third Symphony in A minor 1935-1936. The fact of political exile from his native Russia likely factors into the emotional reticence this music reveals. Along with his usual retinue of lush melodies—here, based on a chant motif in three notes—Rachmaninov yields to a sense of compression and restraint, muting his colors in the horn and solo cello. In sonata-form, the first movement Lento – Allegro moderato – Allegro explodes into the main theme, scored for oboes and bassoons supported by rocking figures in the violins. The large cello melody soon receives the Hollywood treatment in gaudy colors, despite its intrinsic sincerity. Commentators often remark on the development section’s sense of desolation and regret, though the cellos sing out a plaintive theme of note. Hints and allusions to Wagner and his own prior work infiltrate the progression, the harmonies occasionally audacious to provide a sense of hazy unease in the composer’s otherwise conservative syntax.
Rachmaninov combines his slow movement and scherzo into one seamless movement, Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro vivace, opening with his original motto theme in horn and solo harp. The animated scherzo section serves as an extended trio section, interrupting the otherwise syrupy melodic line with jagged and tumultuous colors and disruptive accents. The LSO battery and militant brass relish this activity. The turmoil of the scherzo yields to the return of an abbreviated version of the Adagio, but the scherzo’s energy provides the impetus for the final, expansive movement, Allegro – Allegro vivace that becomes sectionalized in its virtuoso, colorful development. Along with references to the first movement, Rachmaninov—akin to his predecessor Tchaikovsky—must inject a hearty fugue to confirm his Classical status. Rife with cyclical reminiscences, the music will yet again proclaim the Dies Irae as Rachmaninov’s psychic companion, no less than that of Edgar Allan Poe.
The two symphonic poems by Mili Balakirev (1837-1910) testify to his commitment to Glinka’s maxim, “The people create the music, we composers only arrange it.” Russia (1864; rev. 1907) utilizes three folksongs from the Volga region, a wedding song in the manner of Glinka and tow round dances. The wonderful colors that carry the textures set the example for those Russian composers eager to establish a “school” independent of German models. The variety of rhythmic stresses and syncopations makes the piece an instant success, given the alternate transparency and lushness of the scoring, as in the oboe or flute against the harp. Gergiev’s light touch will remind auditors of the gift that Constant Lambert had in this style of music, along with the aforementioned Eugene Goossens. Sir Thomas Beecham would advocate for the tone-poem of the cruel Queen of the Georgians, Tamara (1867-1882), based on a poem by Lermontov that describes a Georgian river gorge of the Terek. The lovely princess Tamara, who inhabits a tower that overlooks the gorge, combines angel and demon in her nature, and she seduces and destroys a passing stranger. Gergiev, like Beecham and Svetlanov before him, urges these two classy examples of Balakirev’s unique skills with gusto and color, well aware of the relative restraint the pieces possess even as they advocate for an “Eastern” authenticity in Russian music.