Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances

The older we get, the more we lose that divine self-confidence which is the treasure of youth, the fewer are those moments when we believe that what we have done is good.
--Sergei Rachmaninoff, in an interview, at age 56.

The Symphonic Dances was the last work Rachmaninoff ever composed. He completed it some four years after his Third Symphony, during a period in his life when "he had become increasingly dissatisfied with himself as a composer and even as a pianist."

Yet more compelling evidence that the profession of classical music brings misery to the vast majority of those who enter it. The more I learn about the lives of major classical music composers and musicians, the more I'm relieved that, at age 17, I gave up any serious idea of becoming a professional trumpet player. I can only think how miserable and self-critical I'd be now at age 40.
Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor
Symphonic Dances

Deutsche Grammophon, 1998

Listener Notes for Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances:
1) Strange, and disappointing, to hear idiosyncratic instrumentation again--a classic symptom of dreaded film score music disease. Examples abound in the early minutes of the first movement: low-register piano notes, percussion used for effect, warbling saxophones solos, harp/piano duets, chimes, piano/flute unison parts, gongs, etc.

2) According to the liner notes with this CD, Rachmaninoff had never used a saxophone in a composition before (thus making my guess last week of the instruments used in the first moments of his Third Symphony incorrect, apparently), but he was influenced by Alexander Glazunov's Saxophone Concerto. Yep, despite the catastrophe that happened when Glazunov drunkenly conducted Rachmaninoff's First Symphony, these two men somehow managed to remain friends.

3) At 6:22 in the first movement there's a stunningly beautiful passage played by strings and piano. It lasts until about 8:40, and then, unfortunately, the film score music comes back.

4) The second movement has to be one of the weirdest, most macabre waltzes I've ever heard.

5) And then it's back to directionless film score music for the third and final movement.

6) I know I'm being a bit harsh on my boy Rachy here. But it's okay to not like a given classical music composer. You can't love everybody. Give everyone a fair listen or two and feel free to decide who you like best and least. You'll have better context, then, for where to invest your time and attention. And once you have enough context know which of the major composers or works you like or don't like, you'll never have to worry about buying the wrong classical music CD, or paying up for symphony tickets that you won't enjoy. You'll know in advance to bias your time towards composers you really like, or composers you don't yet know.

7) And while this CD is admittedly not a favorite of my collection, it is cleanly played. Thus if you're a fan of Rachmaninoff's symphonic works, this is a good CD to buy.

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Laura said...

Interesting that you hear film score music when you listen to Symphonic Dances.

I loved Rachmaninoff as a college student- I'd listen away with headsets while solving chemistry equations in my dorm room. His music was soothing and turned my focus inward so I could concentrate on my own mental machinations.

But maybe this is your point? The Symphonic dances as good background music, to the real action happening on the big screen of life.

Daniel said...

Thanks for your comment MP! Interesting how you used Rachy's music, I like it--although I never was able to listen to classical music (or any music for that matter) and study... music tends to draws my focus outward. Different things for different brains I guess.

Thank you for reading. :)