The music on these two discs spans virtually all of Rachmaninoff’s career from the ever-so-brief Lied for cello and piano (1890) through to his last composition, Symphonic Dances—simultaneously composed for two pianos and the full orchestra. In the very capable hands of these artists, something old is new again and a few blanks in collectors’ “complete works” efforts can be ideally filled.
Symphonic Dances, Suites for Two Pianos
LP Classics, 1019
Without a doubt, the highlight of the Lavrova/Primakov Duo disc is their magical interpretation of the Symphonic Dances. Rather than make any attempt to compete with the rainbow of colours and sonic booms contained in the mighty orchestral version, this performance emphasizes the chamber-like aspect in many of the sections, opting for full weight rather than potentially brutal full-bore blasts when the dynamics and accent markings call for power and force. That decision, combined with virtually seamless transitions and varieties of touch (apparent from the very first measures of Day of Reckoning infused “Non allegro”), will cause many experienced listeners to remark, “Well, I never thought of it that way before.”
Suite No. 1 is notable for discreet bass, easy-going sequences (“Barcarolle”), a welcome abundance of delicacy, care and harmonic riches—artfully realized—(“La nuit”), gently haunting flow, expertly executed changes of register (“Les Larmes”) and a ringing celebration to close (“Pâques”).
The “Introduction” of Op. 17 is energizing from the get-go even as echoes of Schubert’s Marche Militaire come to mind. The question, “Shall we dance?” is answered with an enthusiastic “Yes” in the seemingly effortless “Valse” where the dreamy second subject is brought to memorable life with the pair’s light, yet clear touch. A fine “Romance” indeed displays a beautifully balanced (kudos as well to sound and mastering engineer Alexey Gorokholinsky for crafting such a finely rendered result) feast of tenderness, intimacy and love—the conversational triplets truly speak for themselves. The commonality of approach pays off handily as the “Tarantelle” provides a scintillating chase to the double bar, overflowing with excitement and drive. JWR
Cellist Steven Doane and pianist Barry Snyder make for wonderfully sympathetic, technically accomplished proponents of Rachmaninoff’s repertoire for their instruments.
Danse Orientale more than makes up for its exotic billing even as a solid dose of romanticism slips into the Asian-hued mix. In the opening, the cello seems a tad too present, but that slight blemish is soon remedied—notably in the high register calmo, replete with a most judiciously executed bit of portamento.
The composer’s only cello sonata is unabashedly romantic and can’t help but warm the hearts of all listeners. Curiously, the first few measures (“Lento”) seem to pick up in mood and tone from the Danse; once the “Allegro moderato” is reached the music overflows with a lovely, loving sense of forward motion and flow, spurred on by Brahmsian-dotted rhythms. Snyder’s artful inner voicing leaves no detail forgotten; the powerful, passionate climactic moments are marvels of control even as the second subject serves its purpose as a tonic to the considerable musical heat.
“Allegro scherzando” is led by an edgy, dramatic theme that is beautifully balanced—compositionally and artistically—by the soothing warmth of the “Trio”: devilish playfulness tempered by forays to heavenly heights.
The Song Without Words that comprises the third movment is a fine study of the art of push and pull without falling down the slippery slope of saccharine declamations. How delicately it slips away into the night.
The Finale is filled with joy, confidence and a fine helping of—composer and performers alike—“See what we can do?” The second subject is especially memorable, infused with the heady elixir of a captivating melody and wide-ranging emotions. Once again Doane and Snyder are right at home in the upper reaches, finding just the ideal weight/wait to deliver the reluctant adieu—right to the depth of the C string—with a perfect sense of inevitability.
Rachmaninoff’s second set of Études-Tableaux, courageously recorded in virtually one take, can be savoured as a vrai study of images—whether or not the various suggestions for source material are accurate.
From the very first measures of No.1, Snyder brings a vast array of texture, tone and touch coupled with rhythmic surety—even artfully flirting with falling into an abyss when the moment is just right for a gamble. The second study is a thoughtful reckoning indeed, featuring hauntingly fluid lines and a tolling upper pedal that adds incredible poignancy, leading to moments of bitter rhapsody that are unforgettable. It isn’t difficult to transfer the angst and bravura contained in No. 3 (cross-reference below) to such momentous decisions as Caesar at the Rubicon: What to decide? There’s no going back.
No. 4 oozes confidence and optimism with a few dollops of chromaticism and powerful scales to anchor the art. What follows is a darkly brooding essay—just a few patches of hope woven into the fabric where touches of Chopin-like colourization fit like a glove. Snyder unleashes formidable left-hand power when required, notably the riveting melodic intervention that will delight listeners and speakers alike. Clearly the wait of 16 years from recording to release has been worth the effort. No. 6 is a dramatic study in contrasts where the pianist handles the variety of characterizations with aplomb.
Perhaps the most emotionally searching and harmonically intriguing of the set—No. 7—will provide creative listeners the opportunity to let their imaginations soar, filling in the blanks with what their life experiences allow them to see. The dreamy, calmo, forward-thinking tone of No. 8 provides just the right balance to all that has come before and—for some—might well conjure up the thought of a smiling, contented Debussy.
To conclude, No. 9 offers a ringing farewell, bursting with enthusiasm and a covey of clarion calls. Here’s hoping more live performances of the complete work will find their way onto the world’s concert hall stages.
Lied (once again for cello and piano) is a fond adieu and delectable wee treat, adding two more minutes of insight to Rachmaninoff’s gifts. Curiously, there’s a feeling of unfinished business, but, of course, after 1890, there was so much more to come. JWR