Rachmaninov Isle Of The Dead / Symphonic Dances

This live recording, one of the first from the London Philharmonic’s own designated record label, features both an early and a late work from Rachmaninov’s orchestral canvas. Rachmaninov is so closely identified with the piano, with or without orchestra, that it can come as surprise that he wrote several substantial, idiomatic, purely orchestral scores, including three large symphonies.

 The Isle of the Dead, written in 1907, a large-scale symphonic poem, is one of the most beautiful and brooding of all Rachmaninov’s works, and unlike the vast majority of his output, is virtually unimaginable as a piano work (the piano transcription that surfaces occasionally is very attractive but hardly as emotionally compelling). Based on a painting by the Symbolist Arnold Böcklin, the work flows relentlessly, its moods fleeting and ambiguous, for all its expressive richness. The obsessive, repetitive main theme, with its unsettling five-beat rhythm, is sufficiently fateful to deliver the promise of the work’s title.

In complete contrast tothe Isle of the Dead, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances of 1940 started life as a triptych of  muscular Fantastic Dances for two pianos, and are performed with increasing frequency these days  in that original format. Nonetheless, his extraordinary orchestration of the work, which even features alto sax as a solo instrument, has created one of the outstanding, unique, and lovely works of the 20th century.  Like Bartòk’s Concerto for Orchestra, also written during its composer’s diaspora years in the USA, the Symphonic Dances adopt a translucent, elegant, almost ironic, classicism, although the ghost of Tchaikovsky still haunts its pages—especially in the waltz-time second movement. Most notable is the composer’s eschewal of contrapuntal density, normally a memorable feature of his music, and the effect of this shadowless texture is to imbue the music with immense vigour, while to an extent curtailing its expressivity. The work is consequently popular among those who find the intense, fussy, ‘subjectivity’ of his first three Piano Concertos, and the Sonatas, excessive. The composer’s tight, sectional, control of his thirty-five minute span—the work truly lives up to its ‘symphonic’ name—contrasts vividly with the organic formal evolution of the twenty-odd minute Isle of the Dead; indeed, practically the only discernable resemblance between the two works is their climactic quoting of the Dies Irae plainsong.

If all Rachmaninov’s works were to be lost in some Romanticism-expunging apocalypse, these are the two works of his I would most deeply mourn; they express in epitome the two sides of the composer’s temperament: the veiled melancholy of Isle of the Dead, and the etched classicism of the Symphonic Dances. Hearing the works side by side reveals the astonishing breadth of Rachmaninov’s vision. The performances in these live recordings by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, on their own label, are magnificently accomplished, and the sound is extravagantly fine—not least the seismic percussion in the Symphonic Dances. Jurowski’s empathy for this music is palpable, and the audience reactions—which have been retained on the CD—provide a sense of inclusion that no studio recording can ever match.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.