Rachmaninov and
the Day of Wrath

Some thoughts on Rachmaninov, the Dies Irae and the Symphonic Dances (Click here for a shorter intro)

by Soo Kian Hing

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Throughout his life, Sergei Rachmaninov was plagued by the Dies Irae ("Day of Wrath") motif from the Latin Requiem Mass. Though this motif has been used by other composers throughout the centuries (like Berlioz in La Symphonie fantastique and Saint-SaŽns in the Danse macabre), Rachmaninov's obsession with it is just short of being notorious.

Even in the Symphonic Dances Op.45, his very last major composition, Rachmaninov was still unable to shake off the sinister Dies Irae that has used to legendary effect in many of his major works, most notably in the Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43. Together with the Third Symphony Op.44, these three last works symbolise the composer's late style: less of the gushing idealistic romance that practically rolls across the plains in his Second Piano Concerto, replaced by a more concise, percussive spareness. More mature maybe, yet Rachmaninov retains that innate melancholic sound which practically identifies him. He finished his last and, some argue, his best work in 1940, spending the rest of the three remaining years of his life concertising and revising earlier works.

THE Symphonic Dances, dedicated to Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra (proclaimed Rachmaninov's favourite orchestra), were first written in a version for two pianos. The first movement consists of a stomping, energetic outer section enveloping a beautifully sad, meditative inner section. The sound of bells, another Rachmaninovian obsession, is heard at various points, with the piano tolling hauntingly.

(Let's see... what else was Rachmaninov obsessed with? His hobby in his later years, spent in the States, was motorboats. He even had a studio by the waterside so he could take a spin in his boat when he liked.)

d The second movement is a waltz, of a rather sinister nature. The melody whirls around a minor key, and somehow reminds me of dusk in an ancient haunted castle, in which a suave Dracula waltzes by himself under the silvery moon. The macabre character of this movement combines with the lilting rhythm to create shifty ghostly images, climaxing with an impetuous ghoulish waltz, where unnameable creatures from other worlds join in the devilish fun.

The third movement is essentially the spiritual focus of this entire work. The beginning Allegro vivace recaptures much of the dynamic intensity of the first movement, and, together with the ruminative Lento assai section, plays around with a few melodic ideas, all seemingly disparate and sporadic. It is not until short fanfares announce the start of the final section, that the listener realises that the build-up of this movement has been hinting at the Dies Irae motif. At first it materialises surreptitiously, then expands with increasing fervour and power, finally becoming boldly incorporated into the fabric of the music.

Though Rachmaninov had never outrightly stated the inner meaning of this work, it has been said that the Dies Irae in Rachmaninov's final work embodies the spiritual fight and struggle of the composer. Medtner had written in 1933 that "...[Rachmaninov's] own music's chief themes are the themes of his life..."). Some theories say it symbolises Death itself.

Yet, at last he invokes the Doxology from the Russian Orthodox chant "Blagosloven esi, Gospodi" (Blessed be the Lord), earlier employed in his 1915 setting of the All-Night Vigil. On the score was written "Alliluya" under the notes of this hymn of praise, transcribed here with a festive zest and exuberance. Rachmaninov further inscribed "I thank Thee, Lord" at the very end of the manuscript, and by the same symbolism, Rachmaninov may well be celebrating the victory of God over Death. Thus rests Rachmaninov's unsettled mind in his riches-to-rags life.

(In case you're wondering about the riches-to-rags part, Rachmaninov was born into Russian nobility but his father lost much of their family estate, and his parents separated in his childhood. Rachmaninov himself lost everything else when he left Russia for the States in 1917, never to return, and had to start from scratch; he later rose to renewed fame as a concert pianist. Now isn't the happiness of the world built on one man's tragedy?)

THE ORCHESTRAL version is, expectedly, much more colourful and dramatically effective than the two-piano version; it even incorporates a piano part to enrich the tone. There is no doubt here that Rachmaninov's orchestration is fantastically meticulous yet effective. Yet, while it gains in warmth and richness of colour, it is more robust and crowded, with less of the solitude and icy loneliness that the piano(s) can put across. There is no doubt here that Rachmaninov's orchestration is fantastically meticulous yet effective.

'Morning' by Caspar David Friedrich, 1820-21 Left: "Morning" by Caspar David Friedrich, 1820-21.

The first movement leaps to life as played through the orchestra, with a pulsating rhythm and a yearning alto saxophone solo in the middle, joined later by beseeching strings, exuding the intensity of a Shakespearean tragedy. In the piano version, this solo evokes a different mood - more like a nymph sighing in a pristine forest, trailing her delicate fingers across the surface of a crystalline lake, letting the noonday sun glimmer off the ripples.

Though the second movement loses some of its silvery sheen and ghostly shadows in the bright orchestral colours, the pizzicato strings in the waltz rhythm add much vitality and motion, and the climax escalates into a grotesque howl as all hell breaks loose. The intensity of the finale is similar heightened, and amidst the kaleidoscopic wash of orchestral colours, we can sense the composer's conviction of victory.

Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances : Selected Recordings & Reviews

Two-Piano Version:
Click for full review Symphonic Dances. Suite No.2 Op.17. Russian Rhapsody. MEDTNER Two Pieces Op.58
Nikolai Demidenko and Dmitri Alexeev (pianos)
HYPERION CDA 66654 [78'53"] full-price

Full-bloodied playing and an unforgiving speed gives the Dances plenty of firepower. Technically secure, the two Russian warhorses leap into booming chords and bound over delicate moonlit meadows. Just don't expect Alexeev and Demidenko to let up on steam as they burn their searing tracks into the keyboard. Click here for full review

Symphonic Dances. Suite No.1, op.5 & No.2, op.17. …tudes-tableaux, op.33. Russian Rhapsody. Variations on a theme by Corelli, op.42
Vladimir Ashkenazy and Andre Previn (pianos)
DECCA Double 444 845-2 2 discs [134'52"] budget-price

A more rational Russian pairs up with an English gentleman to offer a more sprawling, imaginative alternative. A more relaxed tempo and lyrical approach allows the listener to take in more of the scenery. For those who like their Rachmaninov less raw but no less spectacular. The Decca sound delivers again with its immediacy and clarity, even though this recording was made some 20 years ago.

Symphonic Dances.
Sergei Rachmaninov and Vladimir Horowitz (pianos)
RCA XXXX-XXXXX-X. 1 imaginary disc [XX'XX"] priceless

A collaboration offered by the composer himself, a scintillating and definitive recording. Especially for the die-hard Rachmaninov fans out there, as well as those who want to catch a glimpse of these two piano superpowers together in action. Believe it or not: request turned down by RCA. You mean they rejected them? Ö

Orchestral Version:
Click for full review Symphonic Dances. The Isle of the Dead.
Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy
DECCA Ovation 430 733-2 [54'16"] mid-price

A powerful and satisfying coupling of the dynamic Dances and the ominous Isle. The late Christopher Palmer provides a fine 2-page essay that poetically introduces these works, while Ashkenazy and the Concertgebouw perform with startling conviction, reproduced in vivid Decca sound. Click here for full article.

Symphonic Dances. + Rachmaninov playing his own piano works.
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Eugene Goosens
Laserlight 14-128 [54'11"] budget-price.

Though the recording of the LSO under Sir Eugene Goosens is stated as a "historic recording" on the CD sleeve (well, Sir Goosens died in 1962), the hair-raising warmth, intensity and immediacy of the orchestral sound is surprisingly well-preserved. The excellence of the orchestra has not been distorted by any loss in dynamic range or clarity, and this performance emerges an exceptional testament to Rachmaninov's last creative spark.


Trick or treat? Soo Kian Hing chants F-E-F-D-E-C-D...

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318: 26.10.98. up.10.4.1999 ©Soo Kian Hing

Readers' Comments

From: Timothy Ku ( / Wednesday, November 18, 1998 at 10:19:54)

There was indeed a proposal to have Rachmaninov and Horowitz record the Symphonic Dances on two pianos, and yes, RCA had this one shelved!!! [Oops! It was my typo which indicated Rach and Ashkenazy! Thanks for the note, Tim! The info has been corrected! - Ed.]

From: Mike Shakinovsky ( / Monday, December 21, 1998 at 07:23:50)

Your analysis of this work (Symphonic Dances) is as sensitive as it is inspired! It Hits the mark perfectly. Thank You!!!


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Other Resources at The Flying Inkpot

The Second Piano Concerto An Inktroduction

The Second Piano Concerto - Recordings Survey Part I

Concerto Reviews:

Piano Concertos Nos.1-4 by the composer himself, Sergei Rachmaninov (Naxos Historical)

Piano Concertos Nos.1-4 with Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca)

Piano Concertos Nos.1-4 with Idil Biret (Naxos)

Piano Concertos Nos.1-4 with Peter Rösel (Berlin)

Piano Concertos Nos.1-4 featuring Earl Wild (Chandos)

Piano Concertos Nos.2 & 3 with Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa (BIS)


Chamber & Piano:
The Ampico Rolls 1919-29 An Inktroduction with Recordings Recommendations

The "Elegiac" Piano Trios with the Borodin Trio (Chandos)

Music for Two Pianos: Suite No.2 op.17, Russian Rhapsody, and Symphonic Dances. With pianists Dmitri Alexeev and Nikolai Demidenko. Also features music by Medtner


Orchestral Works:
The Symphonic Dances and the Day of Wrath An Essay

Orchestral Works (Decca Capbox set)

The Isle of the Dead and the Symphonic Dances A classic recording by Vladimir Ashkenazy

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