Saturday, January 16, 2016

Sergei Rachmaninov - Symphony No. 2 in E Minor - The Rock - CSR Symphony Orchestra, Stephen Gunzenhauser - Naxos 1989

Hello everyone. I am sorry for my week plus absence. The dust has been 'settling' around here much to the chagrin of enthusiastic visitors I'm sure; the blog has been as clamorous as a John Cage work lasting less than 5 minutes. Life has been grueling around here but all one can do is try to hold on and hope for change. Ok on to the music.

I enjoy all three of Rachmaninov's symphonies yet the 2nd has always been my favorite. It's the first of the three that really swept me away; this could be the result of my early familiarity with it, or perhaps it's the 2nd's emotional impact on me with it's glorious Tchaikovskian romanticism that was everything my heart and ears desired at the time. Or likely both. Either way it's a piece that I have to listen to a couple times a year at the least. This is also a case of "nostalgic collecting" since this (early for Naxos) recording was my very first of Rach's Symphony No. 2. My father already had several at the time, but I adored this account the most. "The Rock" is here played very well too I must say!

Compared to many other recordings old and new, Gunzenhauser chooses slower, relaxed tempi and it's noticeable (almost) throughout. It's a refreshing account however as there is much nuance and color that the listener will discover here that is often muted in other more "energetic" accounts.  

Following the performances in January 1906 of his two one-act operas The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini, Rachmaninov next turned to composing an opera on Maeterlinck's Monna Vanna, but this ran into difficulties and remains a fragment. Then in February 1907 he wrote to a friend about a rumour in the Russian press: "It's true, I have composed a symphony. It's only ready in rough. I finished it a month ago, and immediately put it aside. It was a severe worry to me, and I am not going to think about it any more. But I am mystified how the newspapers got onto it". He was bound to be wary of announcing a new symphony, for the only performance of his First, in 1897, had been a disaster.

Rachmaninov conducted the first performances of the Second Symphony in St Petersburg on 26 January 1908 and in Moscow a week later. He went on to conduct it several times in both Europe and the USA over the next six years, but never conducted it after leaving Russia in 1918, and unfortunately never had the chance to record it.

Sympathetic listeners agree that the Second Symphony contains the very best of Rachmaninov. Deliberately paced and rhythmically flexible, it is, above all, propelled by the wonderfully fertile melody of which he was such a master. The orchestral sound is full and rich, but unlike such contemporaries as Strauss and Mahler, Rachmaninov is relatively modest in his orchestral demands. He is also rather un-Russian in his approach to orchestration. Instead of the unmixed colours favoured by so many of his countrymen from Glinka to Shostakovich, Rachmaninov deals in varied shades and combinations, producing a full, sonorous orchestral blend, with horns and low woodwind (particularly the melancholy cor anglais and bass clarinet) supporting the middle of the texture, and the tuba doubling the long-held bass notes that frequently underpin the music.

The slow introduction begins with an entire group of motto themes heard one after the other: the initial unison phrase on cellos and basses, ominous brass and wind chords, and the phrase passed from first to second violins. This introduction, as well as being a rich mine of thematic material, also announces the scale of what follows.

The E minor Allegro moderato emerges organically from the introduction. Its yearning first theme is carried forward with the same sequential techniques that characterise the introduction, but the quicker tempo gives the music a more positive, striving character. The second theme, beginning and ending in G major, is not designed to contrast strongly with the first, but rather to continue its melodic narrative into a different and lighter-sounding tonal area. The turbulent development, fragmenting motives from the introduction and the first subject, spills over into the reprise of the first subject, which then leads to the movement’s most intense climax, with echoes of the music that described the infernal whirlwind in Francesca da Rimini. The return of the second theme marks the first appearance of E major, suggesting a major-key conclusion to the movement; but as the tempo quickens for the coda, the music darkens again and ends in a stormy E minor.

Although there is a great deal of activity in the Allegro moderato, its deliberate pacing and generally slow rate of harmonic change do not make it a really fast movement. The quick A minor Scherzo, therefore, follows in second, rather than in third place. It is one of Rachmaninov's most vigorous movements, rhythmically incisive and clear in design. The main horn theme is not only the source of the scampering contrapuntal ideas in the central section, but towards the end of the movement it declares its own derivation from the sinister wind chords in the symphony's first bars. The music dies away in an ominous murmur.

The Adagio turns the music from A minor vigour to A major lyricism. Its opening phrase, rising on violins, comes again from the world of Francesca da Rimini, this time its ecstatic love duet. It is one of the three main melodic elements in the movement, the others being the rapt clarinet solo which immediately follows it and the violin phrase motto from the symphony's introduction. The presentation, and then the subtle combination, of these three elements is vocal throughout, and sustained by a rich variety of accompaniment figures.

The breadth of scale is sustained in the finale, which is so balanced that reminiscences of the preceding movements are accommodated without losing momentum. It begins in proud, boisterous style, and this is how the symphony will eventually end. In the course of the movement, however, there is room for many shades of feeling and also for one of the very biggest of Rachmaninov's "big tunes", given at each of its two appearances to massed strings.

Enjoy everyone


DarkS said...

Never heard this Naxos, and I do not know Rachmaninov as well as I should. Thanks!

Scraps said...

I'm sorry that your life is anxious. I wish I could make it a little better, as you make mine!

coppinsuk said...

Likewise, one of my earliest purchases of the formidable Naxos series - VIVA NAXOS!!!

Thanks and cheers,

Douglas (UK)

Tzadik said...

Ah DarkS, one must know their Rach-man ;) Go enjoy!
I'm sure you are familiar with the concertos..


Tzadik said...

Hi there Scraps, happy new year to you, I don't think we have "spoken" since 2015-or I could be wrong, my mind is such a pea-soup fog these days! Thank you for you words. Getting a kind message from you does help make things a lil better :) Why blog w/o 'meeting' great like-minded people? Than you for being one of them, my friend.


Tzadik said...

Douglas, Yes yes yes!!! VIVA Naxos indeed!!! I have to say even the earliest recordings with lesser-known Euro ensembles (and Asian) were pretty darn impressive considering the mainstream $$$ classical labels. Who knew that Naxos would grow into something of a heaven on earth for music lovers like ourselves??

What are your other favorite early Naxos discs? I have an all-Grieg disc, all music for strings (forget the ensemble off-hand) that I love, as well as a nicely-filled 1988 Sibelius disc (also with the CSR) with: Finlandia, Karelia Suite, Lemminkäinen's Return, Pohjola's Daughter, The Swan Of Tuonela, Valse Triste, and I'm actually forgetting a few tracks! And then all the early Dvorak discs (the tone poems, Slavonic Dances, even the symphonies were played well - mostly under the Slovak Philharmonic). Oh and wonderful disc of Serenades for Strings, Suk and Dvorak (1989) AND I will stop....I have bucket loads of the earliest recordings that I fancy; the quality has improved 10 fold over the years however there are some real gems from that period!



Marcelo Lasta said...

Acabo de escuchar esta versión de la archifamosa 2 da Sinfonia del ruso,¡es mejor que la antológica y larguisima-molto dulce de leche-de Previn,aunque no supera la de Ormandy.Yo tengo dos en cd's reales:Svetlanov y Bychkov,ambos monumentales,pero esta de Naxos-amo este sello por sus descubrimientos,ciclos integrales y precios cosmopolitas revolucionarios de todas las épocas de la Musik-es muy bella,sin edulcorantes superfluos,en fin,digna de tener en mi discoteca,ojalá retornen los naxos en venta en disquerías reales a mi país.No pierdo la mia dolce Speranza discómana.Abrazo tapiresco,querido Tzadik.Gracias por compartir.