Focus on Sergei Rachmaninov, Part I: Symphony No.3 (1936)

Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninov is something of a 20th century enigma: he doesn’t fit neatly into the parade of modernist composers who blossomed in Europe and Russia in the early years of the 20th century, and he stubbornly resisted the tide of serialism that conquered the composing world soon after WWI. However, it is incorrect to call him an anachronism, either, as his music could not have been written in the 19th century, and throughout his works are subtle hallmarks of a ‘modern’ ear, one that combined the true sensibility of Romanticism with a world-weary, and at times, despairing 20th century outlook. Even before his death, the critical music world dismissed him as a has-been (and to some, a never-was), though his works stubbornly refused to disappear from the repertory. Audiences clamored to hear his 2nd and 3rd piano concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, his 2nd symphony, and numerous piano works, including the haunting, often Chopinesque Preludes. It wasn’t until serialism had run its course (and even academics were admitting that audiences would never completely warm to its rigors) that conductors, musicians, and critics began the ‘thaw’ of Rachmaninov’s legacy. Sure, some of the works never entirely fell out of favor, but what of all the other works—the 2 other piano concertos, the 3 other symphonies, and a slew of piano works that few pianists dared to attempt (such as the First Piano Sonata, or the unrevised version of the Second). Today, Rachmaninov is one of the most-recorded composers in the catalogue, his reputation as a 20th century master firmly established, and a true link between the generation of Tchaikovsky and the neo-Romantics, including many modernist-Romantics such as Samuel Barber and Erich Korngold. 
This is the first post of many where I will examine some of his ‘forgotten’ works, which even today, are lesser-known (though often prolifically recorded), and belie his status as an “old fashioned” composer, or as Stravinsky once accused him, a painter who abandoned fresh watercolors for stale oils.  Hearing this works alongside his more famous music gives us a complex portrait of an artist who continued to grow and evolve, even though his unique musical thumbprint appeared at an early age.  Though he would never be as radical as Schoenberg, or as innovative as Bartok, he offered profound solutions to the question of musical meaning in a disillusioned age.  Rachmaninov’s piano sounds like no one else’s before or since, and his orchestra, though spiced with the aromas of Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss, finds its own solitary byways that few composers dared—or were able—to follow. 

Symphony No.3: This late, autumnal symphony was largely rejected by both the modernists and the traditionalists when it appeared in 1936.  Modernists, of course, found it another example of his mawkish melodrama, while friends more in sympathy with Rachmaninov, such as the composer-pianist Nikolai Medtner, exclaimed that he had jumped to the modernist’s camp!  The reasons for this confusing critical assessment are not hard to discern: the symphony marries Rachmaninov’s traditional melodies and flow with a growing appreciation for American music, as well as, perhaps, a deeper understanding of Stravinsky’s art.  His orchestration is leaner, more muscular, and yet more inventive than in previous works, such as the gargantuan, and sometimes densely scored Second Symphony.  Chief among his orchestral innovations is his focus on rhythmic elements, which to me suggests allusions to the American scene—jazz and Broadway above all.  The opening movement, however, is most memorable for its sense of overwhelming longing; it has been called his “Exile” symphony, for Rachmaninov had abandoned Russia after the Revolution and was never to return.  He spent his last decades in America, shored up in Southern California along other European ex-pats such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky.  For such a deeply Russian composer (at least in the sense that his music carries a significant national stamp), composing in America must have been a tricky proposition (all the more so in Beverly Hills!). Many attributed his long compositional silence to his exile, though it probably had more to do with an endless round of concert engagements to pay the bills. 

At any rate, the Third Symphony exhibits Rachmaninov at the height of his powers, and like the Second Symphony, it opens with a motto theme that provides material for the entire movement—a haunting tune for 2 clarinets, horn and muted cello, which then explodes into a rhythmic clatter.  This subsides into more typical Rachmaninov, a searching, wistful theme which seems to speak of exile and old Russia (it also slightly resembles a more agitated version of the slow movement of Piano Concerto No.4).  Rachmaninov develops this in many unusual ways, often more typical of his scherzo movements than a first movement.  His use of percussion and rhythmic effects nicely offset his familiar melodic strain, making the movement a refined, subtle, but always provocative masterpiece.  The slow movement is the most interesting movement, as it combines slow movement and scherzo, offering us one of his greatest romantic themes, but not letting it run the show as in the Second Symphony.  A jolly, sardonic march intrudes early on, dominating the movement until the gorgeous theme reasserts itself.  The finale that follows is cut from the same cloth as the opening movement, with boisterous, scherzo-like rhythm occasionally broken up by moments of painful nostalgia.  I honestly feel like this was Rachmaninov’s way of composing in an ‘American’ style without compromising his essential aesthetic.  It is more athletic and lean, yet everything sounds exactly like him.  I truly admire his ability, quite late in life, to unleash a side of him left dormant (to some degree) since his First Symphony, where melody was firmly held in check for symphonic development.  While I wouldn’t say this is necessary better than his more famous Second Symphony, it is surely its equal—and superior for its ability to conform to new styles and be influenced by his adopted homeland. 
I have never heard a bad recorded version of this symphony, though I would recommend the following versions highly: Dutoit with the Philadelphia Symphony, Jansons with the St. Peterburgh Philharmonic, Ashkenazy with the London Symphony, and Ormandy with the Philadelphia (the pioneer recording).