RACHMANINOV: Symphony No. 2 (Alexander Anissimov/ Ireland National Symphony Orchestra/ Tim Handley) (Naxos: 8.554230)
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Symphony No. 2 in Eminor, Op. 27
The Russian composer and pianist Sergey Rachmaninov was born in 1873,the son of aristocratic parents. His father's improvidence, however, led to achange in the fortunes of the family when increasing debts necessitated thesale of one estate after another, followed by removal to an apartment in StPetersburg. It was there that Rachmaninov, at the age of nine, entered theConservatory on a scholarship. The subsequent separation of his parents and hisown failure in general subject examinations brought about his move to theMoscow, where he was accepted as a pupil of Nikolay Zverev, a pupil of JohnField's pupil, Dubucque, and of Adolf von Henselt. Rachmaninov lodged inZverev's house, where the necessary discipline was instilled, providing himwith the basis of a subsequently formidable technique. In 1888 he entered theConservatory as a pupil of his cousin Alexander Ziloti, a former pupil ofZverev and later of Liszt. Rachmaninov's other teachers at the Conservatorywere Sergey Taneyev, a former pupil of Nikolay Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, withwhom he studied counterpoint, and Rimsky-Korsakov's former pupil Anton Arensky,Rachmaninov's techer for fugue, harmony and free composition. In Moscow, astime went on, he won considerable success, both as a performer and as acomposer, after graduating in the piano class of the Conservatory in 1891 andin composition the following year.
The Revolution of 1917 brought many changes. While some musiciansremained in Russia, others chose temporary or permanent exile abroad.
Rachmaninov took the latter course and thereafter found himself obliged to relyon his remarkable gifts as a pianist for the support of himself and his family,at the same time continuing his work as a conductor. Composition inevitably hadto take second place and it was principally as a pianist, one of the greatestof his time, that he became known to audiences. Concert-tours in America provedlucrative and he established a publishing enterprise in Paris, where he livedfor some time, before having a house built for himself and his family atHertenstein, near Lucerne. In 1939 he left Europe, finally settling at BeverlyHills, where he died in 1943.
The first ofRachmaninov's three symphonies, written in 1895, had proved a greatdisappointment. His second attempt at the form, it was given its firstperformance two years later in St Petersburg, with the encouragement of thepublisher and now most effective patron of Russian music, Belyayev. The workwas conducted badly by Glazunov, allegedly drunk at the time, and was savagelyreviewed by Cesar Cui, who described it as a student attempt to depict in musicthe seven plagues of Egypt. This public failure, after earlier success,diverted Rachmaninov from composition and he took a position as conductor withthe Mamontov Opera, apparently unable to return to composition. It was asuccessful course of hypnotherapy with Dr Nikolay Dahl in the first months of1900 that brought a measure of relief and his first work on a second pianoconcerto, dedicated to Dr Dahl and completed and performed the following year.
A new symphony hadbeen promised Alexander Ziloti, now conductor of the Moscow PhilharmonicSociety concerts, as early as 1902. In October 1906 Rachmaninov settled inDresden, returning for the summer to Ivanovka, an estate belonging to hiswife's family that he was later to buy. The symphony was sketched out in roughby 1907 and during the summer he set to work on the orchestration. The work wentslowly and the symphony was only completed in January 1908, to be performedsuccessfully in St Petersburg under the composer's direction towards the end ofthe same month, as part of a concert season under Ziloti. The symphony wasdedicated to Sergey Taneyev.
Rachmaninov's SymphonyNo. 2 in E minor, Opus 27, is an extended work, dominated by strong lyricalfeeling that has brought it a high degree of popularity. Underlying the work isthe composer's recurrent idee fixe, the Dies irae, the sequenceof the Latin Requiem Mass, a musical allusion to death at least since its useby Berlioz in 1830. The symphony starts with a slow introduction and a mottomotif heard first in the lower strings. The step-wise outline of the motifsuggests the melodic outline of much of the material that is to follow. A coranglais leads to the main body of the movement, a sonata-allegro in which thefirst subject, in E minor, expanded in the central development, leads to a morelyrical G major second subject, which, in turn, forms the substance of therecapitulation. The C major second movement Scherzo, skilfullyorchestrated, has a molto cantabile secondary theme and a central fugatointroduced by the second violins, followed by the first and then theviolas, developed before the recapitulation. The A major third movement, theepitome of romantic longing, is introduced by a violin theme that leads to anextended clarinet melody. This last is to return with the first violins and anaccompanying use of the first theme, which finally triumphs, followed by anallusion to the opening motif of the symphony. The last movement starts with avigorons dance, leading to a secondary theme that suggests and then directlyquotes the opening of the slow movement. The first theme is developed in a moresinister dance, with accompanying hints of the Dies irae and referencesto the opening motif. The second theme is heard again before the emphaticclosing section.