Misery Loves Company

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

I'm too happy to enjoy Rachmaninoff as much as I used to. When I was a suffering, insufferable teenager, he was my favorite composer. During my first semester in college, I wallowed in my misery to the tear-jerking melodies of this latter-day (1873-1943) romantic. Here was my soul-mate: a composer who shared my depressions, insecurities, and longings for acceptance and love.

My roommate at the time - a vulgar, tasteless, oil tycoon's son from Wichita, Kansas - referred to this world-class composer, pianist and conductor as "Rocky." I almost killed him, but he dropped out of school, and my life, before I had the chance.

I shall always love Rachmaninoff, but I doubt that I shall ever relate to his music quite as much as I did back then. Misery loves company, and Rachmaninoff kept me company, record after record, day after day.

Starting with his most famous works - the Piano Concerto No. 2, the Symphony No. 2 , and the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini - I expanded my record collection to include every Rachmaninoff composition that had ever been issued. I even learned to play his most famous piano piece, the Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, myself - no small feat for someone who rarely attempted any work which wasn't in C major.

My fear of flats and sharps and my feelings for Rachmaninoff came back to me as I listened to two extraordinary new "Digital Surround Sound" releases by Intersound. The first (CDS 3449) contains the complete version of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 with the Symphony Orchestra of Russia conducted by Paul Freeman. The second (CDS 3450) includes four Rachmaninoff compositions, all admirably performed by the San Diego Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yoav Talmi: Cinq Etudes Tableaux (Five Picture Studies), The Isle of the Dead, Vocalise for Orchestra and Capriccio Bohémien.

The origin of Rachmaninoff's first big depression was the première of his First Symphony. He himself described the performance as "indescribable torture," and he destroyed the manuscript afterwards. Both critics and public concurred. His mental state improved under treatment from a psychologist/hypnotist, to whom he dedicated his instantly successful Piano Concerto No. 2.

The Second Symphony, like the Second Piano Concerto, is one of Rachmaninoff's indisputable masterpieces, even though he himself didn't realize this. "I give my solemn word," he said after finishing it, "no more symphonies!" Nevertheless, he broke his promise - only once - some 30 years later.

The third movement of the Second Symphony is so serious, so sad, and so beautiful, it would make the perfect accompaniment for an unsuccessful suicide. The exciting, dramatic, soaring lyricism of the final two minutes of the fourth movement provides some of the finest moments in all Rachmaninoff.

Paul Freeman and the Symphony Orchestra of Russia did a magnificent job with the performance, as did Intersound with the sparkling, realistic audio. But I'm still trying to decide whether to recommend this CD or the outstanding 1981 performance by the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy (London 400 081-2). They're both terrific. Buy whichever is on sale!

The new Intersound recording of Cinq Etudes Tableaux uses the 1943 orchestrations by Respighi, arguably the best orchestrator who ever lived. And he did an outstanding job making these piano pieces sound as though they were original orchestral works which he composed. But that's fair enough. It makes up for the piano pieces of other composers that Rachmaninoff recorded as a pianist. He had such a strong, individualistic style, he made every composition he played sound as though it were written by Rachmaninoff.

Nevertheless, if you prefer the original piano versions, they are now available complete, both opus 33 and 39, well played by Howard Shelley on the English label, Hyperion (CDA 66091).

The Isle of the Dead, as its name implies, isn't exactly a Johann Strauss waltz. But it's gorgeous stuff, beautifully interpreted on this CD. If you don't yet have a recording of Rachmaninoff's hauntingly beautiful Vocalise, you'll find it here. And you'll discover, as well, the Capriccio Bohémien, Op. 12, a delightful, relatively cheerful, early work.

Rachmaninoff wrote some first-class, highly lyrical music which many CD collectors have yet to discover, i.e.: the Piano Trios (performed by the Borodin Trio on Chandos CHAN 8341), the Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 19 (with Lynn Harrell and Vladimir Ashkenazy on London 414 340-2), the Symphonic Dances (with some 18 different interpretations currently available), and his choral masterpiece, Vespers, Op. 37 (Le Chant du Monde LDC 278 845).

As for the Symphony No. 1, it was never performed again in Rachmaninoff's lifetime. But the orchestral parts used by Glazounov when he conducted the première were discovered during World War II, and a new score constructed. So you can judge this work for yourself. There are seven CDs currently available, including an all-digital recording with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra (London 411 657-2).

Rocky would be surprised and - as was his custom - unhappy.

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