This is how Igor Stravinsky described Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff, referencing his composition, Isle of the Dead, “regarded as the quintessential expression of the composer’s melancholy.” (Source).
I hasten to add that the concert Vasil and I attended last evening was well worth the time and all other ephemeral and concrete resources. Before the intermission, it was magnificent. So let’s start at the beginning.
The venue was Berwaldhallen. We were seated directly behind and above the orchestra, able easily to see all the instruments except for the brass, timpani and percussion. But, with a little effort which wasn’t distracting to our nearby fellow auditors, we could see these as well. Even better, we could clearly observe every movement and facial expression of the conductor, Juraj Valčuha.
Here was the menu for the evening:
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3
Rachmaninov: Isle of the Dead
Ravel: La valse
Juraj Valcuha conductor
Alexei Volodin piano
Immediately upon hearing the familiar opening chords of the piano concerto, I was brought back to the times my mother and I together listened to this quintessentially romantic and, yes, melancholy music. I venture to say that Rachmaninoff was the last of the great romantic composers, and I emphasize ‘great.’ (Dad preferred the Classical Period, centering around Beethoven).
The pianist was unknown to me, but this is not his fault. I obviously have not been paying attention.
Alexei Volodin was, throughout the performance, a complete master of the extraordinarily difficult keystrokes demanded by the composer/pianist, and of the passion and power I imagine the composer intended to transmit to the audience. A micro-second after the long piece was thunderously completed, the audience erupted in loud huzzahs and applause, not letting Mr. Volodin escape until after five trips between the stage and the wings, no doubt wishing an encore. But after this athletic performance he deserved a rest. He mopped his brow often during the performance, when the composer had allowed the symphony to play by themselves. In any case, anything more would have been an anticlimax.
Which was a problem for the rest of the evening’s offerings.
Vasil sat to my right. The gentleman to my left later remarked that the piano concerto should have been the last item on the menu, not the first. He had considered leaving during the paus.
I don’t remember having heard Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead before this evening. As I remarked to both Vasil and the gentleman to my left after the piece ended, I had now heard it and don’t need to hear it again. I got no argument from either man.
Before the music started, I had an interest to see if Rachmaninoff had employed the Dies irae which he had used in his most popular composition, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, and which Franz Liszt had used as the motif in his Totentanz (Dance of Death).
The “Dies Irae” was used in the Roman liturgy as the sequence for the Requiem Mass for centuries, as evidenced by the important place it holds in musical settings such as those by Mozart and Verdi. It appears in the Roman Missal of 1962, the last edition before the implementation of the revisions from the Second Vatican Council. As such, it is still heard in churches where the Tridentine Latin liturgy is celebrated. It also formed part of the traditional liturgy of All Souls’ Day. (Source)
These are the opening words to the musical chant:
(Day of wrath and doom impending/David’s word with Sibyl’s blending/Heaven and earth in ashes ending!)
In researching the Dies irae for this article I found that Rachmaninoff used it in seven of his compositions:
- Symphony No. 1, Op. 13
- Symphony No. 2, Op. 27
- Symphony No. 3, Op. 44
- Isle of the Dead, Op. 29
- The Bells choral symphony, Op. 35
- Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
- Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
Apparently the Dies irae is used throughout Isle of the Dead, but I spotted it only at the very end, and faintly.
It was tedious to listen to this piece in hearing no clear thematic thread, sort of like a mournful piece that Mahler might write if he were Russian. I’ll say no more about the piece, except that the conductor and orchestra were heroic in their performance, some passages demanding the utmost in skill.
Well, now we know that Rachmaninoff had a mournful spirit, but in his expression of it, and in the hopeful and supremely beautiful passages that break through it in his other music, he has given us something unique to be treasured.
Now to La Valse, by Maurice Ravel, a favorite piece for me.
Ravel had for years intended to write some sort of tribute to Johann Strauss II, a Viennese-style waltz on Ravel’s own terms. Strauss, had he been alive, would probably have found the result to be gruesome. Ravel’s waltz is both nostalgic and sinister, rising from nothing but a vague rhythmic pulse, proceeding through several distinct waltz sequences (much more closely linked thematically than in any Strauss waltz), each culminating in an increasingly powerful crescendo and ending in apocalypse. Along the way come disturbing accelerations and ritards (making this particularly unsuitable for ballroom dancing), dynamic extremes, and eerie glissandi, creating an atmosphere of violence, decadence, and decay. In short, it is a portrait of Vienna (and Europe) in the years surrounding World War I. (Source).
It was a treat to sit so near the timpani and percussion for this piece. They had a lot to do, and as loud as they could get, along with the brass section which sat between. This is a most playful piece, taking the themes traveling in various shapes, colors and intensities through all the orchestra’s instruments, including two harps.
I continue to praise the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in these pages, because I can’t help it! This piece put them through the most severe test of their physical strength, their ability to be perfectly synchronized, and to play without my noticing any incorrect or poorly played note (or percussion beat).
La Valse was a good antidote to its deadly predecessor on the program.
As we departed the auditorium, the gentleman to my left and I agreed that the three pieces chosen for this evening’s performance were quite different from each other; we could see no ‘red thread’ or thematic connection running through them.
A curious selection of pieces this evening. Nonetheless , all praise to the conductor, Juraj Valčuha .