Album review: The Philadelphia Orchestra and Nézet-Séguin own Rachmaninoff on the new DG album

Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. © Jessica Griffin

”Day of wrath and doom impending. David’s word with Sibyl’s blending, Heaven and earth in ashes ending”, or, as the original Latin text says, ”Dies iræ, dies illa. Solvet sæclum in favilla, Teste David cum Sibylla.”

As is well-known, for Sergei Rachmaninoff, the sombre plainchant melody accompanying the words of the De die judicii Sequentia or the Last Judgment became an idée fixe running through his oeuvre in myriad guises. In terms of his orchestral music, Dies iræ forms a half-a-century arch, ranging from the composer’s first surviving symphonic foray, Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 (1895) all the way to his last major score, Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940). 

Stemming from the bittersweetness of all life, shaped by mortality, Rachmaninoff’s dark-hued romanticism yielded to a compelling catalogue of works from solo piano pieces to orchestral scores, choral music and opera. Alongside his four piano concertos, Rachmaninoff’s symphony cycle forms a fascinating entity within the twentieth century repertoire. 

It should be noted that although there are only three numbered symphonies by Rachmaninoff, his 1913 Edgar Allan Poe setting, The Bells, Op. 35, constitutes, in fact, a four-movement choral symphony. In addition, Symphonic Dances, his forty-minute, three-movement orchestral farewell, lives to its title and extends to genuinely symphonic proportions.  

A resident of the United States since 1918, Rachmaninoff became closely associated with the Philadelphia Orchestra in his late years. 

Under Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, the orchestra gave first performances of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934) and the final version of the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40 (1926/1941), both with the composer as soloist, as well as Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 (1935-36) and Symphonic Dances

The Philadelphia Orchestra also performed on the world premiere recordings of these works, consolidating the Rachmaninoff connection even further. 

With the he 150th anniversary of the composer’s birthday ahead in 2023, the orchestra and  Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin are inaugurating a three-album series of new recordings of Rachmaninoff’s orchestral works. 

Coming in the heels of their lauded cycle of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos with Daniil Trifonov, the new recording project launches with a dazzling first volume, pairing together Symphony No. 1 and Symphonic Dances.

According to Deutsche Grammophon, this initial release is to be followed by recordings of Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op 27 (1906-07) and The Isle of the Death, Op. 29 (1908) in 2022, with a disc featuring Symphony No. 3 and The Bells. completing the cycle in 2023.

Based on the newly released first album, the orchestra and Nézet-Séguin simply own Rachmaninoff, as demonstrated by their vigorous and insightful performances. Clad in gorgeous sonics by the DG team, these are recordings to cherish. 

Forty five years separate the two works recorded here. Written in 1895, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor was, in fact, preceded by an unperformed student symphony of 1890-91, now partially lost. 

The Symphony No. 1 proper was to drift at the brink of extinction too. Following its disastrous 1897 premiere by an orchestra ill-prepared by Alexander Glazunov, Rachmaninoff withdrew the score from performance. The manuscript subsequently perished in the aftermath of the October Revolution, and for almost three decades, the symphony was considered lost. 

Luckily the orchestral parts were rediscovered in the forties, and the score was thus reconstructed. Its American premiere took place finally in 1948, with none other than the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy’s baton. 

Seventy one years later, in June 2019, the performance of the symphony by the orchestra and Nézet-Séguin was caught on disc in concert at the Verizon Hall by the DG team. 

The entire four-movement score of Symphony No. 1 is interwoven with various permutations of the Dies iræ plainchant, from its first appearance in the very introduction all the way to the symphony’s closing. 

The opening movement is conceived as a brooding panorama, driven by invigorating rhythms and clad in astounding orchestral Technicolor. The score may lack some of the subtlety of mature Rachmaninoff, but is peerless in its sheer steadfastness and sonic heat. 

Right from the seven-bar introduction, one is simply astonished by the fabulous sonorities of the Philadelphia Orchestra. With Nézet-Séguin on the podium, the opening movement builds up to a riveting symphonic drama. Intoxicatingly gripping, the performance commands the listener’s full attention from start to finish, resulting in a sonic journey par excellence. 

A dreamscape-of-a-scherzo ensues, again stemming from the Dies iræ. The music is a mixture of fantastic, airy textures and ghost-like shapes, resulting in splendid orchestral ambivalence. In similar vein, the larghetto slow movement hovers back and forth between nocturnal calm and ominous nightmare. 

With a superlative mixture of instrumental finesse and dramatic intensity, the inner movements are awash with colour and nuanced detail. 

The allegro con fuoco finale may not be the most immaculate creation structure-wise, but in good hands, it can be a tremendously intense affair.  With Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the finale comes off with astounding musicality, resulting in one of the finest takes I’ve ever encountered. 

Be it the resplendent fanfares or the most vehement tutti, Rachmaninoff’s finale is given a thoroughly gorgeous outing. Both lush and transparent, the orchestra provides the listener with outstanding symphonic tapestry. Well-shaped by Nézet-Séguin, the orchestral fabric is conveyed into a truly satisfying narrative.  

Written in New York in 1940, the score of Symphonic Dances is a wonderful summa of Rachmaninoff’s orchestral output. Originally titled as Fantastic Dances, the tree movements comprise a quasi-symphonic entity, both overtly nostalgic and unyieldingly relentless.  

While the score is rooted in rhythmic heat, each of the three dances constitute a fully-fledged symphonic movement. Brilliantly scored for a large orchestra, augmented with alto saxophone, piano and an uplifting array or percussion, Symphonic Dances is a case in point of Rachmaninoff’s orchestral mastery. 

The opening movement, originally titled as Noon, is a feast of melody and tone-colour, rooted in enthrallingly bittersweet lyricism. Woven into the fabric, a quote from the then-lost Symphony No. 1 harks back to the realm of the past, only accessed in memory. 

On their September 2018 live performance recorded here, Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra embrace both the lyric melancholy and the biting grotesque of Rachmaninoff’s score with all their skill and commitment, yielding to a profoundly moving take of the opening dance. 

The central valse, marked andante con moto, opens with an icily sarcastic statement from muted horns, paving the way for a solo violin. The music grows into a nocturnal panorama, a surreal vision of a dance-hall, perhaps. Masterfully orchestrated, the shape of the music is in constant flux, portraying itself in a series of  mirages.

The Philadelphia Orchestra and Nézet-Séguin onstage at Verizon Hall. © Jessica Griffin

With their Music Director, the Philadelphia players navigate through the movement with utmost sensitivity, while maintaining  exemplary continuity. Thus a nuanced performance in dream-like logic is delivered to a stunning effect. 

The score closes with a compellingly persistent symphonic sequence, where the music is thrown into a hair-raising upheaval. Clad in astounding orchestral garb, the final dance, headed Midnight in Rachmaninoff’s draft, keeps pushing through a shroud of nightmares, before plunging into an enigmatic symphonic abyss, with a single tam-tam note left hauntingly vibrating into silence. 

Performed with wholehearted commitment and utmost intensity by the orchestra and Nézet-Séguin, the third movement is a shattering affair. On several occasions, I found myself motionless in dead silence long after the final track on the disc had rounded off. A strangely cathartic experience. 

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 (1895)

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940)

Recorded at Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 16 June 2019 (Symphony No. 1), 16 September 2018 (Symphonic Dances)

Deutsche Grammophon 4839839 (2021), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

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