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.