Paavo Jarvi embarks on a series of recordings dedicated to the composer’s orchestral oeuvre.
RACHMANINOV: Symphony No. 3 in a minor, Op. 44; Capriccio on Gypsy Themes, Op. 12; Symphonic Dances, Op. 45; The Rock, Op. 7; Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 – Orch. de Paris/ Paavo Jarvi – Erato 0825646195794, 60:18, 56:42 (2 CDs) (10/2/15) [Distr. by Warner Classics] ****:
As part of the Serge Rachmaninov Foundation, conductor Paavo Jarvi undertook several recordings at the Salle Pleyel in Paris – 19-21 October 2011 and 27-28 March 2013 – “to preserve the cultural heritage of Villa Senar in Switzerland. . .and to bring the whole of his oeuvre. . .to public attention.”
The concert opens with the 1936 Symphony No. 3, in which Rachmaninov maintains – even in exile – his basic nostalgia for Mother Russia, while incorporating a new economy of means and sparser sonority than he had invested into his last orchestral works, dating from 1909. The modal threnody that dominates the first movement Lento – Allegro moderato – Allegro will reappear in various guises, typical of the composer’s tendency to cyclic form. The combined instruments occasionally splash passionately in rich colors, with touches from a Russian wedding song. Conductor Jarvi has commented on his fondness for the Orchestre de Paris wind players, whom he credits for ability to project their individual personalities. The happy color mix comes to the fore in the Adagio movement, in which violin, French horn, harp, flute, bass clarinet, and celesta combine in effective palette. The color borders on the exotic, with touches of Tchaikovsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov. The slow movement segues into Allegro vivace, a nervously skittish episode whose colors combine martial and balletic elements. An originally optimistic impulse drives the last movement forward – at least at first – with a dance motif that will evolve into a learned, extended fugato. Yet, despite the energy, the folk-inspired rhythms, and nostalgic melos, the ubiquitous Dies Irae intrudes itself, like the Red Death in the Poe tale. Jarvi permits some sunlight to exorcise the shadows, but whether the last pages mean that Rachmaninov has found his imaginative El Dorado remains debatable.
Jarvi turns to the first of the early Rachmaninov compositions on this set, with the Caprice bohemian on Gypsy Themes from 1894. This Capriccio obviously means to pay homage to Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov – and even Glinka – for their contributions to the orchestral celebration of native folk tunes. Relatively absent are the gypsy tunes – no Liszt influence here – but the dominant bassoon motif of G-F#-E in descending order dominates the evolution of the piece. The flute announces the transition to the second section, in which the young composer’s native gift for melody emerges. A solo cello, flutes, and clarinets take us to the dance of the final section, a rather ceremonial Russian affair well within the Glinka model. Suave string work, along with Jarvi’s favored winds and brass, provides us a sense that the composer did well to preserve this piece, which gave him misgivings.
The 1940 Symphonic Dances, dedicated to the Philadelphia Orchestra, was clearly meant to display that ensemble’s individual color capacities, and here the Orchestre de Paris rises to the occasion. The bluesy saxophone, in concert with gurgling winds of the opening Non allegro, raises the specter of Mother Russia, soon to suffer siege from National Socialist aggression. The piano, too, adds a degree of sentimental color, almost a swan song to the many wonderful collaborations Rachmaninov had created for that instrument. Its spirited, martial character, rife with orchestra battery and high flutes, makes a potent impression from this French orchestra. The second movement – Andante con moto. Tempo di valse – first had its persuasive beauty revealed to me by way of Sir Eugene Goossens and the London Symphony. Some have likened the diaphanous, swirling atmosphere of the opening bars to Ravel’s La Valse, another lament for a bygone sensibility. Violin leader Philippe Aiche makes his presence felt as he intones the lead-in to the oboe theme. The string legato certainly warrants just comparison with Ormandy’s fabulous Philadelphians. Credit the splendid, even acerbic, sound effects to Laure Casenave-Pere and Etienne Crossein, producer and engineer, respectively. The final movement combines Rachmaninov’s gloomy, liturgical romanticism with his martial, even aggressive embrace of mortality, in his persistent embrace of the Dies Irae in brilliant brass flourishes. If ever Poe had a musical equivalent, Rachmaninov provided that alter ego.
The remaining pair of pieces – The Rock and the Vocalise – allow Jarvi to address the literary and purely lyric aspects of Rachmaninov’s art. The 1894 tone-poem, dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov and much admired by Tchaikovsky, invokes a quote from Lermontov and splices it to a narrative by Chekhov, a story entitled “On the Road.” The confrontation between an old, embittered man and vivacious young woman at an inn during a snowstorm captures the psychology of loss and hope, with Rachmaninov’s juxtaposition of short, spare motifs for the man and a flute to embody the aspirations of the woman. At the conclusion, according to Chekhov, a blizzard covers the old man until he resembles an isolated, neglected crag. Wistfully intense, this performance quite warrants the price of admission, if the already vibrant accompanying works had not convinced us. Echoes of the Philadelphia Orchestra strings resonate once more, by way of the 1912 wordless song, the Vocalise, which by now requires no justification for its nostalgic poignancy.