Music by Russian composers in the twentieth century presents some interesting contrasts, not only between those who remained in the Soviet Union after the 1917 Revolution, such as Dmitri Shostakovich, but also among the expatriates, such as, in this case, the composers I have been calling over the past few days “The Two Sergeis”: Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev.
Rachmaninoff came of the privileged classes in Russia, although not of the aristocracy; he began his first piano lessons with his father at about age four, although it was not until later that his governess noted his talent. Although he had begun a successful career as a pianist in Russia before the Revolution, and was at first sympathetic to the aims of the revolutionaries, he became disenchanted and escaped with his wife and children to Sweden, and thence to the United States.
In 1934, the success of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini restored his self-confidence, shaken by a string of less than positive notices, and he began work on the Third Symphony the following summer. It was, unfortunately, not successful, although the symphony is now recognized as Rachmaninoff’s best.
I can’t say that I’m overwhelmingly impressed by this recording of the Symphony No. 3 by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony Orchestra, and I don’t know where to lay the blame. Commentators have remarked on the “taughtness” of the form, its rhythmic vitality, its orchestration, and I have to confess that at this hearing, it strikes me as both formless and fairly colorless. It’s a decent symphony, and I have always had great respect for Abravanel as an interpreter, but we all have very ready access to the greatest masterpieces of music, and Rachmaninoff is not, I think for valid reasons, considered one of the very greatest of composers. The Third may very well be his best symphony; that does not make it a great symphony. It actually pains me to put it in those terms, but there is some justification: thinking about it, if I need a symphony fix, I will turn to Brahms or Mahler, von Karajan’s Beethoven Seventh or Bernstein’s rendition of the Ninth, even Franck’s Symphony in D Minor if I want to be (slightly) scandalized. Rachmaninoff is not generally on the list.
This is another in Silverline’s DualDisc tributes to Abravanel; the DVD side contains a performance video, a composer bio, and several pieces on Abravanel himself.
The Piano Concerto No. 3 is a very different story. It was Rachmaninoff’s “calling card” for his first concert tour of America, premiered in New York under Walter Damrosch and later performed with no less than Gustav Mahler conducting. Again, this composition was met with confusion, and gained a reputation as a romantic war-horse (although I certainly have no problem with that). To my ear, it has everything that the Third Symphony is supposed to have. Perhaps that is due in part to Rachmaninoff’s sympathy for the piano — he was a legendary pianist himself, and I think that kind of affinity must necessarily show up in the music.
The recording reissued by Sony from the old RCA Red Seal was a live recording by Van Cliburn, himself a legend, with the Symphony of the Air under the great Russian conductor Kiril Kondrashin. This is Cliburn just back from his epoch-making trip to Russia, where he was the winner of the first Tchaikovsky Competition, which shocked everyone, particularly the Russians. (Literally “just back” — he had returned to the U.S. two days before this concert was taped.)
This one has all the drive and passion — and the lyricism — we look for in the romantic repertoire. Some commentators have called Cliburn’s interpretation “confused,” but I really can’t hear that. Regrettably, the sound quality is not great, but even under the muddiness of the recording, one can sense the clarity of Cliburn’s approach and his deep involvement with the music. Depending on how patient you are with less-than-perfect sound, this is certainly one to check out.
Sergei Prokofiev was, technically, only temporarily an expatriate: after leaving Russia in 1918, he had a varied career in the U.S. and Europe before returning to Russia permanently in 1936. Even as early as 1910, when he was still a student at the Academy of Music in St. Petersburg, Prokofiev was causing scandals with his compositions.
Prokofiev had sketched the theme from the middle movement of his Piano Concerto No. 3 as early as 1913, with other ideas accumulating until the work was finally completed in 1921 and premiered later that year with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock. Unlike Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev was unabashedly “experimental.” As a composer I’ve always found him engaging, sometimes funny, often lyrical, equally as often astringent and tight.
The Piano Concerto No. 3 is a must-have for the basic classical library, twentieth-century section. It just screams “twentieth century modern!” although by the time the work was premiered, many considered it a little passé. Their mistake. It is a prime example of the Russian avant-garde from the years around World War I — lean, tight, sometimes pungent, it also shimmers with the kind of orchestral color that seems to be characteristic of the Russians from Moussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov to Stravinsky and even Shostakovich.
This recording by Cliburn, with Walter Hendl and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is one of the strongest contenders among the multitude of recordings of this work. Hendl was associate conductor of CSO at the time (1960) and had been one of the judges at Moscow when Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky. Together, they bring to this piece not only some pile-driver intensity and overwhelming momentum, but a sweetness in the beginning of the second movement that almost melts in your mouth — think of a lemon Bavarian crème with just the right proportions of everything. And under everything there is a steady pulse that drives the whole concerto. Amazing.
(Silverline Classics, 2004)
(Sony BMG Music Entertainment (orig. RCA Red Seal), 2005